Starting in 1936, leaders of the Soviet Union commissioned a series of show trials. These were public trials in which alleged enemies of the state were found guilty then executed.
They weren’t real trials, of course. Show trials are not about Justice; they are meant to Send A Message. In a show trial, no amount of evidence will change the predetermined Guilty verdict.
So it is in the case of The People v. Tom Robinson, where a black man is accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Georgia.
You may have heard of this fictional court case. It’s from 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the 1960 novel. The film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the Accused.
(Note: We’re focusing on the trial as presented in the film. Sadly, there’s no time to compare it to the novel.)
We first learn about the alleged assault when lawyer Atticus Finch does, on a summer evening as he sits alone on his front veranda, listening to his children through an upstairs window.
A judge (Paul Fix) unexpectedly drops by and says he’s thinking of appointing Atticus as Robinson’s defence attorney. This is a polite way of giving a direct order, but Atticus Finch doesn’t need to be ordered. He agrees to act as defence counsel.
The trial takes place on a hot summer day, and everyone in town has squeezed into the courtroom to watch Atticus at work. His questioning of witnesses is so thorough, we’re convinced Tom Robinson can’t lose.
Through cross examination, we learn Robinson’s accuser (Collin Wilcox) is a troubled woman. She’s poor, uneducated and married to a violent man. As Atticus questions her, we feel the rage she harbours. We wonder how much of her fury is meant for Robinson vs. the World At Large.
For example, she screams at spectators in the courtroom. “If you ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it, you’re just a bunch of lousy yellow stinkin’ cowards,” she cries.
As for the soft-spoken Robinson, his testimony must be coaxed out of him. He says he passed his accuser’s house daily as he walked to and from the fields where he worked. Then his accuser began asking for his help with her family’s chores. This placed him in a difficult position, made worse when she tried to seduce him.
By condemning Robinson, the accuser has inadvertently condemned the entire town. Atticus Finch makes this clear in his closing arguments.
First, he chides the prosecution for not providing enough evidence of the alleged crime. He then says the trial is actually about “a rigid and time-honoured code of our society. A code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst.”
Atticus Finch gives the jury the opportunity to acquit an innocent man, but they pass.
They find Tom Robinson guilty.
When we hear the verdict, we realize Tom Robinson was never going to be acquitted. There is no defence against a time-honoured code.
Aside from that, Robinson is an unlikely force to be reckoned with, and not in a way anyone expected. In telling his version of events, Robinson says he found it strange there was no one to help his accuser with her chores. Then this:
Robinson: “I felt right sorry for her.”
Prosecutor: “You felt sorry for her? A white woman? You. Felt sorry for her.”
You see, Robinson’s sense of decency has just indicted white society. This makes him an enemy of the state.
Ironically, Robinson is the type of person who could inspire others to change their lives for the better – and he would have, in a real trial. But this wasn’t a real trial.
It was just for show.
To Kill a Mockingbird: starring Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Written by Horton Foote. Universal-International Films, 1962, B&W, 129 mins.
This post is part of The Classic Courtroom Movies Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.