Hey Boo: Harper Lee & “To Kill a Mockingbird”
I am currently teaching a class at the Caring Community, a senior center located on Washington Square. The class is called “The Golden Age of the Documentary.” My premise is that we are, in fact, living in a great time for documentaries. Many of the movie theatres that feature strong documentary programming are right in our neighborhood or just outside of it: The Quad (34 W. 13 St.), Cinema Village (22 E. 12 St.), IFC Center (323 6th Ave.), Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston St.) and Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.).
Last Friday I went to the Quad to see the documentary “Hey Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was one of three documentaries opening that day at the four screen theatre. The other two were “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” and “How to Live Forever.” The latter was reviewed, by me, on May 9 (scroll down). While standing in front of the Quad I spoke with Mark Wexler, who directed “How to Live Forever,” and was there to introduce his movie and have a post screening discussion with the audience. Similarly Mary Murphy, the director of “Hey Boo,” was on hand to introduce and talk about her excellent documentary about author Harper Lee and the impact of book, and movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Murphy, a former producer of the TV show “60 Minutes,” recalled pitching the idea for this documentary to CBS. The network was not interested unless Murphy could get Lee to be in the documentary. “No Harper Lee, no story,” was the response Murphy received. Lee, the documentary explains, had stopped giving interviews at age 34 and has been reclusive ever since. Not to be deterred, Murphy decided that she could tell the story of the novel without the novelist. Murphy explained that she just started shooting. “I was sort of on my own with a lot of it,” she said. Murphy said that finding the structure of the piece, the spine, “almost killed me.” Murphy told me the project took four and a half years to complete.
Murphy was fortunate enough to gain the cooperation of many authors, at a writers’ convention, who were willing to talk, on camera, about the personal and global impact of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They paint a picture of a book that spoke to the issue of civil rights even before the Civil Rights Movement, and may have even been an influence on the movement. Author James McBride (“The Color of Water”) said “Mockingbird” was the first book by a white writer that discussed racism with sophistication.
In addition to McBride, the interview subjects include an eclectic group from the literary and broadcast worlds: Rick Bragg, Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokow, Roseanne Cash and others. Oprah Winfrey speaks at great length about the book’s impact on her, as well as her experience of actually meeting Harper Lee. Author Richard Russo explains that masterpieces are masterpieces because they tap into something inside of us.
Although I read “Mockingbird” long ago and, of course, saw the movie, “Hey Boo” was thoughtful and captivating enough to prompt me to want to do an adult re-evaluation of the work, which is essentially what most documentaries want their audiences to do: take action. In the case of “Mockingbird” it will most likely involve seeing how far we have come and how much further we still have to go.
Hey Boo:Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird , Director Mary Murphy, 2011,
First Run Features, 82 minutes, not rated