On February 3, 2015, PBS’s “America Reframed” aired Sandra Jaffe’s “Our Mockingbird.” If you missed it, the film is available on the web. Watch it now!
The film is several stories at once.
First and foremost, it is the story of two high schools, one black and one white, in what the students themselves identify as our still somewhat segregated America. They come together from two high schools in Birmingham, AL -- Mountain Brook High School and Fairfield High Preparatory School -- to put on a musical version of Harper Lee’s novel.
The film is very much interested in the students’ apprehensions. They are nervous around each other: unsure what to think and how to act, anxious about how they are perceived. The white students, for example, notice the lack of space and money for drama at the predominately African-American school; they also worry about being perceived as rich and stuck up.
As the group rehearses, however, they clearly bond over what Mockingbird means to them individually and collectively and how it remains relevant today. They realize how, all these years after desegregation, they live in separate worlds and rarely have to interact with people outside their racial comfort zones. With the enthusiasm of the young, they welcome the opportunity the production allows them to do so.
The film doesn’t highlight any of the internal dramas of the troupe (what high school theatrical production is without drama, regardless of the racial mix?); instead, it celebrates the coming together of these talented and thoughtful young adults. We seem them chatting, hugging, and, in one scene, reflecting on the fact that they can be together in public, black and white, arm and arm, without fear of reprisal. It’s irresistible. And who can disagree with the teachers when they suggest that this experience will be life-changing for the kids involved.
In addition, the film focuses on Alabama and its Civil Rights history, fleshing out the places and events so important to the world in which Harper Lee lived when she wrote her story: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the 1963 Children’s Campaign, and Kelly Ingram Park, where police used fire houses and dogs on young protesters. The student actors visit these sites and the film shows them learning and digesting their local history and the context of the text (and of Lee’s writing of the text).
Finally, the film includes a variety of notable voices reflecting on both our Civil Rights history and on the impact of Mockingbird, including Doug Jones, the former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; various southern writers and journalists including Diane McWhorter, Rick Bragg, and Cynthia Tucker; Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Mary Badham, who played “Scout” in the original film; and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
So, watch this film. Watch it for inspiration as we see amazing educators transforming the lives of these young people and carrying on the legacy of their Civil Rights predecessors in Birmingham. This film should raise any educator’s spirit in these days when it isn’t easy to be a teacher.
And use this film. Instead of sticking in the film version of Mockingbird as a treat after students have read the book, use this documentary to drive home the point of why Lee’s novel mattered and continues to matter. Your students will be transported by Jaffe’s amazing film and the amazing work of these educators and young people.