Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird

While everyone here seems agreed that Harper Lee is that "conscience," she remains rather perfectly the writer who refuses to perform her intentions.

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird

Director: Mary McDonagh Murphy
Cast: Tom Brokaw, Roseanne Cash, James McBride, Oprah Winfrey
Rated: NR
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-05-13 (Limited release)

"I just felt so attached to her. I just wish I could have been as smart as her, always been there with the comeback, but, oh well." Lots of people feel the same way as Mary Badham about Scout Finch, the character she played in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Wise and immature, tomboyish and vulnerable, Scout is recognizable even to people who didn't grow up in segregated Alabama, who didn't have a scary next door neighbor and who didn't have an awesome dad like Atticus.

The continuing resonance of Scout's story is the subject of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird. James McBride describes Scout's narration as a delicate combination of perspectives: "She sees the world through child's eyes with an adult's understanding." Mark Childress notes her meaningful symbiosis with Dill: "Scout was about half boy and Dill was about half girl, so you know the two of 'em were odd birds in their town." And Oprah Winfrey underlines the character's effect on her as a child: "I fell in love with Scout, I wanted to be Scout. I thought I was Scout."

None of these assessments is necessarily right or wrong, but all demonstrate the impulse to perform feelings about the character and To Kill a Mockingbird, novel, film, and phenomenon. The film piles up testimony to the book's greatness, with celebrity speakers including Oprah, Tom Brokaw (who speaks to the "universality of small towns"), Scott Turow ("Not only is Atticus this wonderful father, completely intuitive and caring, you know, but he's even the best shot in the county!"), and even Roseanne Cash (so moved she struggles to describe her response, "I remember taking that feeling of integrity and sense of conscience, and the idea that the way you behaved, whether people saw you or not, was central to becoming yourself," a point underlined by a glamour shot of Cash, apparently become "herself").

Each of these declarations probably says more about the performer than Harper Lee's book (or again, Robert Mulligan's movie, as the documentary hopelessly entangles the two, repeatedly using scenes from the movie to illustrate readings from the books). At the same time, they all insist on the resonance of To Kill a Mockingbird, as a story, as a mirror held up to a culture and set of beliefs, and as a reading and viewing experience.

It's a resonance that's both singular and, because it's been noted so often, a little too familiar. While it might be summed up in somewhat standard fashion ("You don't get a chance to have a book or a film like that very often, that has such an impact on people's lives," offers Badham), it also inspires overstatement (Lee Smith: "I think Scout has done more for Southern womanhood than any other character in literature") or reflections on the history it translates, as when Rev. Thomas Lane Butts observes over footage of children in Klan robes and photos of lynchings, "It was just a time in which black people were treated terribly. And people took in racism with their mother's milk."

Other speakers also serve to situate To Kill a Mockingbird in history, including Mary Tucker, a teacher who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama and also recalls loving the book when she was a child, though she now sees herself as unusual: "I didn’t know many white people, so I didn’t know what they thought of it," she says, "Not a lot of black people read the book." As if to illustrate, the film cuts to Andrew Young, who confesses he didn’t read it when it was published in 1960. "I didn’t need to read that. I knew what they were talking about. For somebody who didn’t know about that, all right" he says, alluding to those white readers who might have been amazed at what they learned. "I had no intellectual curiosity about it."

Mary McDonagh Murphy's documentary doesn’t explore this difference between white and black experiences of the book and movie, as it focuses again and again on their "universality." It does, however, confront more directly its own structuring absence, namely that of Harper Lee. As much as the film asserts To Kill a Mockingbird's significance and articulates the two texts' shifting meanings, it can only guess at the experience of the author -- who has famously not written another book and also, equally famously, refused to be interviewed for some 40 years.

Lee's nonappearance is established in the film's first moments, which run a 1964 radio interview with her over a black screen. Asked how she felt about the book's popularity, she says, "Well, my reaction to it was not one of surprise, it was one of sheer numbness. It was one of being hit over the head and knocked cold." As to why she stopped speaking to the press, her friends and readers can only imagine -- as they are apparently eager to do. Some of their conjectures are to be expected, as when Childress generalizes, "All your experience is born out of your own life. It's, do you transform the material? And I think that's what she did, and put such magic on it." And others are a little mischievous. Historian Diane McWhorter says of Lee's childhood friendship with Truman Capote, the inspiration for Dill: "The incredible contrast between this person who has become the conscience of the country and this person who was probably a sociopath," she smiles broadly, "It's phenomenal when you think about it."

While everyone here seems agreed that Harper Lee is that "conscience," she remains rather perfectly the writer refuses to perform her intentions, for an interviewer who's asking or an audience who's projecting. Even as people speculate, imagining both questions and answers for her. Her 99-year-old sister Alice, still a lawyer in the firm their father helped to found, explains Lee's absence as a choice. "As time went on, she said that reporters began to take too many liberties with what she was saying, so she just wanted out... She felt like she gave enough." Hey, Boo isn't asking more of her. But it can't quite leave her alone, either.

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