HEY, BOO: HARPER LEE AND TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD – The Review
Fifty years after its first publication, To Kill A Mockingbird continues to sell almost a million copies each year. Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, a documentary film by Mary McDonagh Murphy, traces the historical setting of the novel and its social and personal impact on our culture. Through interviews with friends, family, historians and the townspeople of Monroeville, where the author was born and raised, the film also explores the personal history of literature’s most reclusive characters, the “J.D. Salinger of the South”, Harper Lee.
The film opens with the very moving story of a gift that made the novel possible. At 23, after leaving law school, Lee arrived in New York City to pursue her passion for writing. Struggling for work, she took a job as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines. Forced to spend her first Christmas working in the city she was invited to join her friends, the family of Michael Brown and his wife Joy, for Christmas. When interviewed in the film, Joy says that she and Michael always knew that Harper was too talented to be “selling airlines tickets forever.” After her husband, a Broadway composer and lyricist, received his first payment for a jingle he had written, they both, very selflessly, agreed to give Lee a most impressive Christmas present; the money to quit her job and do what she wanted to do: write.
The Brown’s also set Lee up with a literary agent, who found a publisher willing to take on what was described as a very “rough draft” for To Kill a Mockingbird. However, the editor could see that Harper Lee had talent and a compelling story. The documentary reveals the correspondence between the editors and Harper Lee and the numerous edits and re-writes the book went through before fully taking shape as the novel we now recognize. A year and a half later, To Kill a Mockingbird was published to almost immediate critical acclaim. A Pulitzer Prize followed and soon after, a Hollywood deal for a feature length film adaptation of the novel, starring Gregory Peck.
Amidst the social unrest of the era: race riots, the KKK, freedom rides, To Kill a Mockingbird is a stunning anomaly. Written by a white woman, the book transgressed sex, class and race, to strike a timely chord with all who read it.Documented in Hey Boo, one woman recalls the shame she felt as a young girl realizing that she had unconsciously found herself siding with and rooting for the accused black character, Tom. Although she feared what her parents would say, the book had already worked its magic; she, a young white girl in the south, had empathized with and found herself on the side of the “other”. The powerful social impact of Harper Lee’s novel and it’s timing is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects explored in the film, Hey Boo.
Weaving in interviews, the documentary unearths the sweeping effect this novel has had on authors and personalities such as Oprah and Tom Brochaw, among others.
Whether sympathizing with the character of Scout, or yearning for a Father figure like Atticus, the characters and the novel come alive through the stories, anecdotes and insights shared by admirers, friends and even family of Harper Lee.
The closest the filmmakers got to an interview with Harper Lee, who hasn’t formally spoken to the press since 1964, is an interview with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee.Alice comments on the intriguing relationship between childhood friends, Truman Capote and Harper Lee including dispelling the long-standing myth that Capote was the actual author of To Kill a Mockingbird. While the audience may have greeted these recurring interview segments with a sense of auditory trepidation, due to the ear-piercing pitch and drawl of the 96 year old Alice Finch Lee, she is an endearing addition to the documentary as next of kin to Harper, and provides important pieces to the puzzle of the novel and the life of its author.
When the documentary strays from the personal interviews to various classroom settings across America, in order to assess the relevance of the novel for the young people of today, it takes on the feel of an educational tool rather than an artful social documentary. It is in connecting and unearthing the small, first-hand tidbits about the life of the author that the film succeeds most. The contributions from friends and family shed light on the construction of the characters in the novel while the discussion brought to bare by literary figures and historians enriches one’s understanding of the novels’ content and structure. The personal response to the novel, shared by fellow authors and writers compellingly attests to the brilliance of
the work and its young author.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an ever-present testament to the power of compelling art as a tool for social change. Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird is an instructive film with a social message, but falls short on artistic and emotional merit. However, it is nonetheless a studious ode to the artist.