February: Love Thy Neighbor


Anchored by the theme “Love thy Neighbor”, this month’s Big Screen Classics explore the difficult subjects of prejudice and intolerance, and highlight the importance of seeing beyond preconceptions. In fact, the Library of Congress deemed several of the movies in this month’s collection “culturally significant” for their statements on such major societal issues.

This month’s line-up:

2/1 – To Kill a Mockingbird

A widower lawyer tackles racial injustice in the 1930’s south while trying to instill character and acceptance in his two young children.

2/8 – West Side Story

A modern(ish) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, two teenagers from opposing NYC gangs fall in love and try to overcome deep rivalries.

2/15 – Little Big Man

An old man spins a tale of growing up in the western frontier, witnessing a series of amazing historic events while bouncing between a Native American tribe and white settler society.

2/22 – In the Heat of the Night

A black northeastern cop is caught up in a murder investigation in the deep South during the highly charged civil rights era.

“To Kill A Mockingbird”

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill A Mockingbird” tackles racial injustice in the landscape of the Depression-era South. Acclaimed actor Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a deeply principled lawyer who agrees to defend a young black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.

As the trial unfolds, Atticus battles against the townspeople who are upset over his agreement to take the case, while trying to guide his own two young children, Scout and Jem, through the moral complexities of life. The movie expands on the central theme of prejudice through a side story on the family’s mysterious shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, played by Robert Duvall in his first (credited) film debut.

Chicago Reader’s Dave Kerr says, “Harper Lee’s child’s-eye view of southern bigotry gains something in its translation to the screen by Robert Mulligan, who knows exactly where to place the camera to catch a child’s subjective experience.” “To Kill A Mockingbird” is listed as #25 in AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time and earned Gregory Peck the1963 Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Atticus Finch.

“West Side Story”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s most famous star-crossed lovers, “West Side Story” is a romantic musical focused on two teenagers whose love is doomed by their affiliation with rival gangs. Originally launched as a Broadway stage play in 1957, the musical was adapted for film in 1961 and starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the young lovers who try to overcome bias and draw connections between the two groups.

In 2013, Whitney Williams of Variety said of the film: “West Side Story” is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations.” David Jenkins of Time Out adds, “Special mention, though, should go to Boris Leven’s neo-expressionist production design and Daniel L Fapp’s forceful cinematography: the crooked angles, pointed shadows and great swashes of red all heighten the mood of rabid fury.”

The movie was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the latter of whom was brought in to choreograph and oversee the music and dance sequences. Though Robbins was eventually removed from the film due to budget overextension and clashes between the directors, the pair was awarded the Best Director Oscar for “West Side Story”—the first time this was ever awarded to co-directors. In total, “West Side Story” won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, to become the biggest Oscar-winning musical. It still holds this distinction today.

“Little Big Man”

Equal parts comedy, drama, and Western, “Little Big Man” is story of Jack Crabb, a white man captured and raised by a Cheyenne tribe, who at the unbelievable age of 121, recounts his life bouncing between the two cultures and bearing witness to nearly every famous event of the old frontier (similar to the more recent, well-known yarn of Forrest Gump).

Based on the book of the same name, this 1970 movie starts Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam and Chief Dan George– who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Roger Ebert called the movie “an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of a yarn.” He continues, “It is the very folksiness of Penn’s film

that makes it, finally, such a perceptive and important statement about Indians, the West, and the American dream. There’s no stridency, no preaching, no deep-voiced narrators making sure we got the point of the last massacre [Custer’s Last Stand].”

“In the Heat of the Night”

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of this classic film, set in the racially charged civil rights era South and centered around the story of a black police detective from Philadelphia who gets pulled into a small-town Mississippi murder investigation.

Sidney Poitier stars as Detective Virgil Tibbs, who is enlisted to help a bigoted police chief, Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger. Highlighting the heavily segregated and highly charged environment of the deep south of the 60’s, the lead characters clash continually before eventually building a certain mutual—if begrudging—respect as they are forced to work together to hunt a killer.

The film, which gave rise to the infamous line, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”, beat out The Graduate for 1967’s Best Picture Oscar and racked up four additional Oscars. To put in perspective the radicalness and timeliness of the film, its Best Picture Oscar presentation was postponed two days due to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

The movie spurred a long-running tv series in the 80’s and is about to be re-developed for tv by Joe Robert Cole, the writer-producer on the recent miniseries, “People v. OJ Simpson”.