I watched the classic 1960’s movie To Kill a Mockingbird this afternoon. Every now and then, I stopped the movie so I could check out what wikipedia had to say about it. In the book and the movie, Atticus Finch is a lawyer in the deep South of the 1930’s, and he defends a black man accused of rape. Wikipedia says the following about the character (see here):
Alice Petry remarked that “Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person.” Examples of Atticus Finch’s impact on the legal profession are plentiful. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center cites Atticus Finch as the reason he became a lawyer, and Richard Matsch, the federal judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial, counts Atticus as a major judicial influence. One law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook he taught from was To Kill a Mockingbird, and an article in the Michigan Law Review claimed, “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession[.]”
It’s amazing how fiction can have such an impact on real life! Atticus Finch was not a real person. Gregory Peck wasn’t even Atticus Finch, as much as he came to embody that character in the minds of many! Yet, this fictional character has inspired many to become lawyers, as well as influenced discussions in American law.
This reminds me of Star Trek. The acting could get pretty cheesy. The stories were unreal. The science wasn’t all that good. The props were goofy and sometimes implausible. But look at all of the people it inspired: engineers, astronauts, actors, etc., etc.
Many of you may know the story of Nichelle Nichols and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura on the original series. At one point, she was thinking of leaving the show because she didn’t have that many lines. But she was talked out of leaving by a big fan of the series, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King told her that her role was important on the show because it depicted all sorts of races and nationalities working together. Not only would her role communicate an important social message, King said, but it could also encourage black children to reach for the stars in their dreams.
And, sure enough, it did. According to this article: “Years later, women ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, cited Lieutenant Uhura as a major inspiration in their careers. Nichols even spent time working for NASA on an astronaut-recruitment program—an initiative that roped in such people as Sally Ride and Guy Bluford, the first American woman and African-American in space, respectively.”
Nichelle Nichols may have felt that her day-to-day work on Star Trek was unimportant, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Entertainment influences real life.
Of course, life isn’t always what we see on television, and there is a good reason that cynics exist. But it’s good that fiction can set positive trends and inspire us to live up to moral ideals.