By allowing his children to address him by hist first name, Atticus is dismantling one of the many traditions that serve to reinforce and perpetuate traditions that ultimately only serve to delegitimize the experience and perspective of certain people. This forces the viewer to take Scout's recollections and narration more seriously, because although they are the memories of a relatively young child, the viewer cannot help but treat them with a little more respect in recognition of the respect that Atticus, as the most idealized character in the entire film, grants them.
Thus, taking a cue from Atticus, Scout and Jem are respectful and relatively well-behaved, but are never hesitant to question or challenge attitudes and behaviors that they perceive as unjust or unjustified, and particularly in the case of Scout, are especially sensitive to behaviors that hypocritically contradict the ostensible moral standards of society. While is worth noting that by and large "the film shifts perspectives from the book's primary concern with the female protagonist and her perceptions to the male father figure and the adult male world," Scout's status as a female is nevertheless an important part of her role in the film, as will be seen when considering her address to Mr. Cunningham, a member of the mob intent on lynching Tom Robinson (Shackelford 102). Furthermore, examining this same scene will reveal the specific importance of Jem's role as a male child, because even the relationship between Scout and Jem challenges dominant notions of gender roles.
In addition to the three main characters, there are two relatively minor characters that play important roles in the narrative by serving as the object of undue discrimination and scorn. As discussed above, the character of Tom Robinson is not nearly as fleshed out as the white characters, but he nevertheless is crucial to the story, as the overall plot revolves around his fate. In particular, Tom's testimony during his trial serves to reveal the feelings of resentment and superiority held by the white jury when he says that he felt "right sorry for" Mayella Ewell; the prosecution presses him on this point in a condescending, indignant manner, and it clear by the reaction of the crowd that this statement has sealed his fate. In addition to Tom, the character of Arthur "Boo" Radley is an object of undue scorn by the town due to the fact that he is a recluse, and in some ways represents the potential for previously maligned individuals and groups to demonstrate their humanity and worth when given the chance. Though one might quite reasonably take issue with the fact that the white character is granted the opportunity to "redeem" himself while the black character is killed in somewhat dubiously characterized "escape attempt," the characters of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley must nevertheless be considered thematically related elements within the film's overall objective.
The central kernel of the story is Tom Robinson's trial, because this event serves as the orienting point for the entire plot, but this kernel is developed by the satellite events which occur throughout the story. In order to better understand how the central kernel is developed by the satellite events, it will be useful to focus on two particular instances of rhetoric; Scout's address to Mr. Cunningham, and Atticus' closing arguments in Tom's trial. Scout's address to Mr. Cunningham is part of a relatively minor event in the story, but it serves to flesh out both the major event of the trial and the film's overall objective by directly addressing the phenomenon of mob action, and specifically mob violence. After Tom has been arrested for the rape of Mayella, Atticus decides to stand watch outside the jail in an attempt to ensure that Tom is allowed a trial, but a group of men arrive intent on lynching Tom. Although their intention is never stated explicitly, in a manner common to Horton Foote's work, the relatively sparse dialogue allows the viewer to imagine the mob's malicious intent by showing "portraying the reaction of lead characters to tragic happenings" (Edgerton 11). As mob advances on Atticus, Mr. Cunningham says "You know what we want. Get aside from that door, Mr. Finch," and it is clear that they intend to murder Tom right then and there (Foote 49). Atticus attempts to dissuade the men with little success, until Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill run up to him after spying from the bushes.
Atticus tells the children to leave, and after Jem respectfully refuses, one of the men attempts to carry him off. Scout immediately jumps to her brother's defense and starts kicking the man in the leg until Atticus pulls them both onto the porch of the jail. At this point it is worth discussing the visual imagery of the scene, because it is relevant to the rhetorical force of Scout's subsequent speech, and Sonja K. Foss' 1994 essay "A rhetorical schema for the evaluation of visual imagery" will offer some assistance in this regard. As Valeria Peterson notes, "the history of visual images and elements in rhetorical scholarship in the U.S. is relatively short and thin," due to the fact that for much of human history, speech and writing were the primary (and sometimes only) recorded artifacts that could be analyzed, but since the gradual ascendance of film, "the balance of power between words and images has shifted" (Peterson 19, 20). Rather than present a problem for rhetorical theory, however, this shift has merely forced theoreticians to expand the scope of rhetorical theory to include those non-speech elements that nevertheless play a part in any given rhetorical artifact.
In her essay, Foss argues that "judgments of quality about visual imagery [in terms of rhetoric] be made in terms of the function of an image," because in order to understand the rhetorical effect of an image, one must consider the function (irrespective of purpose or intention) in light of "how well that function is communicated," as well as "its legitimacy or soundness, determined by the implications and consequences of the function" ("Rhetorical schema" 215-216). In this case, one may consider the function of this particular moment's mise-en-scene to be the literal and figurative elevation of Atticus and Scout above the mob of men. Firstly, the scene opens with Atticus sitting on the jail porch, bathed in light, as the dark cars of the mob pull up in front of him (Figure 1). Later, Atticus and the children stand on the porch above the mob of men, occupying the literal and figurative high ground (Figure 2). The function is clearly communicated because the scene relies upon common visual tropes regarding morality, such as light vs. darkness and high vs. low, and this visual function can be considered legitimate based on the substance of Scout's speech.
As Atticus attempts to convince Jem to leave, Scout recognizes Mr. Cunningham and addresses him directly, and when he attempts to avoid her gaze, she presses him, reminding him that he brought them hickory nuts, and the fact that she knows his son, Walter Cunningham, Jr. She goes on to comfort him regarding the problem he has with an entailment on his land, and in doing so, ultimately disperses the mob. The importance of this scene for the film's overall objective lies in the way Scout manages to dissolve the mob mentality of the men by addressing Mr. Cunningham as an individual on individual terms; Mr. Cunningham, and the rest of the mob, are only able to confront Atticus and continue on to their murderous goal so long as their individual identities are subsumed by the mob, but Scout's address to Mr. Cunningham disrupts this subsumption by appealing to him on an individual level. Recognizing this is crucial for understanding the role of rhetoric in the film and its application to the contemporary world because it is an instance of rhetoric "built on the principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination rather than on the attempt to control others through persuasive strategies designed to effect change" (Foss & Griffin 4-5 qtd. In Murray 333-334). Scout's rhetoric is not aimed at dissuading the mob, and indeed, it is not clear that Scout fully realizes their intentions beyond the fact that they present a threat to her father. Instead, she is merely appealing to Mr. Cunningham as an individual by reminding him of his own personal experiences, and in doing so, she manages to make Mr. Cunningham reevaluate his actions.
This mode of rhetoric is particularly relevant today, when the anonymity offered by the internet allows individuals to subsume themselves into groups of like-minded people and perpetuate bigoted ideas that they would otherwise be reluctant to express or publicly support. By reaffirming the individuality of Mr. Cunningham in the midst of the mob, Scout provides him a means of escape from the overriding…