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Home Blog Popcorn Parent Movie Reviews Movie Review: Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (NR)

Movie Review: Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (NR)

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Length: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: NR

Age Appropriate for: 10+. I was in fifth grade when I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time, and though the book’s themes include racism, rape and attempted murder, the way it’s told through a 9-year-old girl’s eyes make it digestible and appropriate for younger readers. The documentary is the same way: The n-word and the book’s themes are mentioned, but they’re handled thoughtfully.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may be one of the best American novels ever written, and documentary ‘Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird”’ makes the case for why. It was revolutionary, insightful, forward-thinking, wonderfully nuanced … must I go on?

 

By Roxana Hadadi

 

American society has a great adoration for reclusive authors: J.D. Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway were geniuses who basically couldn’t handle society, choosing to live most of their years far away from the masses who expected more novels, more ideas, more work. They couldn’t deal with us, but we loved them anyway.

And so it goes with Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” probably America’s most affecting novel about segregation and our divided nation: She wrote the book, she helped oversee its Oscar-winning movie adaptation and then she disappeared. For 45 years, she hasn’t given an interview — and she doesn’t give one for “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” either. Instead, writer and director Mary Murphy talks to a plethora of other people, like Lee’s older sister — 99 when interviewed, 15 years Harper’s senior — and a number of admirers and fellow authors, to try and understand what has kept “To Kill a Mockingbird” a favorite after so many decades.

It’s honest, it’s gripping, it’s emotional, they all say — and, most importantly, it’s thoroughly tragic, a tale of human shortcoming told from an innocent child’s point of view. Just when you thought Tom Robinson was about to get off, he doesn’t. Just when you thought Atticus Finch would prevail over Southern racism, he can’t. “To Kill a Mockingbird” will certainly break your heart, and that’s exactly the reason most people who read it never forget it.

“Hey, Boo” traces the novel from its first drafts, penned by Lee while she was struggling to make it as a writer in New York City, through its success after being released in 1960, adaptation into a film in 1962 and permanent fixture in schools across the U.S. ever since. Children still discuss the novel and its importance, as we see in classrooms both in New York and Alabama, and adult fans like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw still remember their favorite passages. Murphy begins her narration in New York City in 1957, where 31-year-old Lee was working on a manuscript titled “Atticus”; a Christmas gift from friends Joy and Michael Brown, enough money to live off for a year, gave her the time to finish up the work.

Rejection letter after rejection letter dampened her spirits, but finally Lee met with publishing house J.B. Lippincott & Co. There was interest, and Lee’s book began looking like a certainty — three years later, on a radio interview, Lee was still shocked about her success. “I never expected the book would sell,” she said in an excerpt included in “Hey, Boo.” “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but I was hoping that … maybe somebody might like it.” Joy Brown was similarly skeptical: “They published 5,000 copies. Who was going to buy 5,000 copies of her book? Maybe 1,000 copies, but who else was ever going to buy this book?”

The rest, obviously, is what we know: The book sold more than 50 million copies and received the Pulitzer Prize, and Lee vanished, moving back to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., and living a quiet life. But her one work left an undeniable mark, one Murphy traces through its various characters — Scout, Atticus, Dill — and American history, like the civil rights movement, which picked up steam after the publication of the novel.

It’s with this division of topics that Murphy sheds the most light on the novel’s impact. During the segment on Scout, Winfrey excitedly discusses how she rapidly read the book, “just devouring it,” and “thought I was Scout.” Wonderfully deep-voiced journalist Brokaw calls the character “irresistible”; Mary Bedham, who played Scout in the film adaptation, wishes “I could have been as smart as Scout”; and novelist Wally Lamb calls her a “little smartass … very typically an American character … poking at the boundaries of good taste.”

What do they say about Boo, the mysterious neighbor who saved Scout and her brother Jem at the end of the novel? “Brilliant stuff, copied and emulated by writers everywhere,” says writer James McBride; thriller novelist James Patterson notes, “You’re suspecting something about Boo that should tell you something about yourself.” It’s deep! It’s true!

And the insights about Alabama, the South where Lee grew up and the book’s impact on the white and black community are intriguing as well, thanks to interviews with the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, pastor of First Methodist Church in Monroeville who became friends with Lee about 30 years ago, and civil rights leader Andrew Young, who acknowledged the book’s importance despite not being interested in it when it was first published. “Intelligent white lawyers, who eventually in the ‘50s and ‘60s became the federal judges who changed the South, without them, we wouldn’t have had a civil rights movement,” Young says, and if that doesn’t describe Atticus, nothing does.

For fans of Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the whole documentary is like one lovingly crafted fan letter, a multi-layered essay with various viewpoints all in praise of the novel’s legacy. Adults who grew up with the book and who are parents of children and teens who have read it — either for school or on their own — would truly enjoy the whole thing, since it not only gives us a rich look at Lee but also at the various social and cultural factors that shaped her finest, and sadly only, work. “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” doesn’t offer up any dirt or anything negative about the novel and its author, but why should it? Sometimes something nice about someone nice is good enough.

“Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at West End Cinema in Northwest D.C., and available on DVD through www.marymurphy.net.

 

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