Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of five): ****
A treasure-trove of fascinating information about media-shy/burned author Harper Lee, her landmark book To Kill a Mockingbird, the fine movie made from it (and much more: even Truman Capote has a major role here), HEY, BOO: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird should have the billion-odd fans of the book lining up to learn more about it -- and the woman who created it. "Landmark" because it enabled white America, north and south, to begin coming to terms with the country's major social problem, racial prejudice, the book remains a force for understanding and change. Further, it is probably one of the few "modern classics" taught in schools that does not always need to be force-fed.
As the information on Lee, her life and work accumulates (an amazingly small amount of published work, this is), ideas about success, fame, writer's block and the task of topping a classic come to the fore, and theories begin to emerge. Thankfully, the film's writer/director/producer Mary McDonagh Murphy doesn't insist on any particular scenario. Yet by the end of the jam-packed 82 minutes, you'll have a relatively clear idea of why things worked out as they did. More important is the wealth of history and information the filmmaker has garnered about the impact of Lee, her book and the film based upon it (that film, by the way, is still considered one of the best novel-to-movie transitions Hollywood has yet managed).
Lee has given not a single media interview for the past 45 years, and so this movie, in its way, becomes a kind of stand-in for what might have been. And a fine one, it is: better, even, than what we would have received had Lee allowed more interviews by our invariably compromised and stupidity-laden media, who often can't even be bothered to have read/seen the book/movie under discussion.
The story begins with a gift, via two good friends, of income bestowed upon Lee (her real name is Nelle Harper Lee) that allowed her a year off work (as an airline reservation-taker here in New York City) to write her book -- which was originally to be called Atticus, the name of one of its several heroes. Strung throughout the documentary are plenty of talking-head interviews, some better than others but all pleasurable and informative. These come from celebrities (yes, Oprah's here), along with Tom Brokaw and Rosanne Cash, writers from Anna Quindlen and Lee Smith to Scott Turow and Wally Lamb, and even ex-politician Andrew Young -- who tells us why the book was good for whites, but not for him: "We knew all that already. We didn't need more of it. It was all around us." And yet Mockingbird, which was published just prior to the heavy breakout of civil rights protesting, proved a comfort and help to early civil right workers.
One of the more fascinating sections of the documentary is devoted to Truman Capote, longtime friend and next-door neighbor of Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. This documentary, in fact, adds some perhaps necessary balance to the two movie-bios of Truman: Capote and the even better film Infamous. What author Alan Gurganus has to say about Capote toward the end of his career is not pleasant. What happened to the Capote/Lee friendship, post-publication of Mockingbird, is also telling.
What we learn about the making of the movie-version fascinates, as well -- from the casting to the film-making. Mary Badham, who played the character of Scout, talks about the day the famous "tire scene" was filmed. In one of my favorite portions, writer Diane McWhorter, a southern girl who went to school with Badham, talks about her feelings when seeing the movie for the first time with her school class. "Crying for a black man! What would my father think?" McWhorter's remarkably candid explanation of how she felt -- and why -- combines history with psychology and, as much as any other scene in the film, explains the ability of this book (and its accompanying movie) to reach white people on a subject that they would rather not address. Another pleasurable section is devoted to hearing today's school kids talk about what the novel has meant to them.
There is simply so much that's so intensely interesting in this documentary -- for instance, which character in the book do you think comes closest to its author? -- that Murphy's movie should rightly drive viewers back to its source: Lee's novel and/or its filmed version.
The DVD extras are worth a look, as they contain extended interviews with Oprah Winfrey, James McBride and Rosanne Cash.
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