Thursday, February 16, 2012

Morgan Freeman and Atticus Finch

I don't know the actor Morgan Freeman, and don't have a clue as to his character when he isn't performing.  But I am familiar with a number of film characters he has played over the years, and have always admired the integrity that seems to come through in his performances.  I'm also familiar with the character of Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Harper Lee's timeless novel of a child's eye view of small-town life in the American south of the 1930s.  Finch is a struggling single father and attorney, a quiet-spoken man who disciplines his children with a gentle hand, and is known for his fairness and deep respect for the law. 

Although it may seem a stretch, it strikes me that both men, one a real-life actor playing a character, the other a fictional character from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, have similar notable attributes.  They both seem to look at the world as a large tapestry woven of many parts, and try to see the parts not as obstacles to truth but as elements contributing to truth that cannot be ignored.  Whether its Ellis "Red" Redding in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur in DRIVING MISS DAISY, or U.S. President Tom Beck in DEEP IMPACT, Morgan Freeman imbues his characters with a quiet dignity that will not be lost to intolerance or prejudice.  In these roles, he exhibits the best qualities of the human spirit.  He is the "everyman" we should all aspire to be.  In fact, if not for the circumstances of the Alabama setting in 1936, I believe Morgan Freeman could easily have filled the Atticus Finch role immortalized by Gregory Peck.

As a writer, I dream of creating a character that embodies the nature of these two men.  More than ever, it seems important to look for rationality.  We live today, and I suppose we've always lived, in very messy times.  And there don't appear to be simple answers to any "big questions."  But there are people who seem to have the wisdom to overlook the noise and chaos to seek the right answers.  Most of these people lead quiet lives, working, taking care of families and giving what they can to their communities.  They have no megaphone or celebrity to tout their generosity, or great wealth to create parks and museums.  Like Jimmy Stewart said in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, they are just the people who do all the living and working and dying, the ones who are the backbone of any small town in America (and most big cities too).

I may be misquoting, but I believe Atticus Finch tells Scout at one point that to really know a person, you have to walk around in his shoes for awhile.  It's a simple notion, and one that may not originate with the Finch character.  But it certainly makes the point about how easy it is to ignore the conditions each of us live under -our hopes, our dreams, our day-to-day burdens.  It may sound sophomoric, perhaps trite, but it is this very basic theme which, even today, runs through a lot of our storytelling.  And it always seems to be the strong, virtuous character that makes the plot within come alive.

So, here is to Morgan the actor and Atticus the character for what they have given to us.  They have few if any equals in the pantheon of film and literature - and I doubt they ever will.