Harper Lee: Hey, Boo debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the American Masters series. It will air at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 9 p.m. Central and Mountain, in most markets, but you should check local listings.
The first time I picked up To Kill A Mockingbird was in seventh grade. The last time was this weekend, after watching Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, American Masters' affectionate tribute to that must-read American novel and its elusive creator. Watching this documentary will do that to you. It’s essentially an 82-minute love letter to the book, filled with authors reading aloud their favorite passages and emotionally explaining how it changed their lives. If Oprah’s rendition of Atticus Finch’s post-verdict exit from the courthouse doesn’t have you welling up and reaching for your library card, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.
It’s not that Hey, Boo says anything you haven’t heard before, particularly if you tuned in to the frenzied celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication last year. Directory Mary McDonagh Murphy had no more luck with interviewing Lee than the scores of other intrepid journalists and fans that she’s politely refused since 1964, so the film is a patchwork of interviews from Lee’s family, friends, admirers, fellow churchgoers, and avid fans. It’s not quite fair to call Lee a recluse. She’s appeared at a share of public events, and in her hometown of Monroeville, she’s known as a friendly face. Though I grew up in Birmingham, almost 200 miles north of Lee’s rural hometown, you didn’t have to ask too many people before you ran into a story about Lee signing a book for a friend or coming to an Easter supper. In fact, my father, who worked at a hospital in Birmingham for many years, once received a signed copy of Mockingbird from a grateful patient from Monroeville, where those are handed out like casseroles to new neighbors. Lee’s literary statesmanship in Alabama is absolute, and her quiet insistence on remaining in the corner of the world she illustrated so well in Mockingbird is part of her charm, but it’s also an understandable hurdle for a work like this one.
Murphy’s portrait of Lee therefore relies heavily on her well-wishers and fellow writers. Without having much of Lee’s own input, other than 1960s era radio interviews, the piece sometimes veers uncomfortably close to hagiography. Nor is there much new information lurking in the interviews about Lee and the cobbled together footage of pre-civil rights era Alabama. Still, Murphy’s hand is sure, and she coaxes many memorable moments from her subjects. Lee’s feisty and charming older sister, Alice Lee, recently turned 100 and still practices law in the office her father did. Her reminiscing about baby sister Nelle gets us as close as we can to who the author actually is as a person, told with the sort of fond exasperation that only titchy younger siblings can bring out.
One of the most moving segments Murphy works in is about the local reaction to Mockingbird among the black population, where the injustices Lee describes were not exactly news. Civil rights leader Andrew Young admits that he didn’t read the book in 1961 because he knew the flavor of Jim Crow all too well. “There was too much horror for me to absorb more,” he tells the camera, and you can hear the battles he waged in his voice. It’s a reminder that Lee’s book was published well before the civil rights movement had made real inroads into her sleepy Alabama town, and it constituted an act of literary bravery.
The documentary touches on the history of Lee’s struggle to publish the book, aided immensely by the generous gift of some friends and some far-seeing editors, but most of it intersperses footage from the 1962 film version of Mockingbird in with testimonials of how the book shaped people’s lives. (And some juicy tidbits about how Gregory Peck stole the role of Atticus from under the nose of Rock Hudson.) The most interesting of these are from fellow writers, whose appreciation comes with more examination of her methods. Wally Lamb’s analysis of the book is particularly interesting and funny, as if he were a magician looking for the trick behind a fellow performer’s act. At the root of fiction, Lamb says, are lies. “You lie, and then the models lift off and become their own,” he says, referencing the similarity between the character Dill and Lee’s own towheaded, neatly dressed childhood friend Truman Capote. Anna Quindlen drew parallels between Lee’s behavior in the press and the scrappy protagonist of the novel: “Everything she did convinced me that she was Scout.”
Hey, Boo isn’t the kind of documentary that will give you huge revelations about a classic work of literature, at least if you remember Lee’s biography from the first time you read the book. But it is a well-done testament to the power of one debut novel that’s still worth going back to. Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film version, describes Scout as a character who’s “just great company.” The same could be said of Hey, Boo, and there are a lot worse ways a documentary could turn out.