Documentary about classic American novel not required viewing

Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird

on April 01, 2011 by John P. McCarthy
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With the recent explosion of idiosyncratic, small-scale documentaries, it's easy to forget what a traditional non-fiction film looks like. A parade of talking heads and strung-together still photos and movie clips, Mary McDonagh Murphy's old-fashioned Hey, Boo fits the bill. Hardly required viewing the way Harper Lee's 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" is required reading, the effusive piece amounts to a wet kiss planted on the cheek of a reluctant author by a well-meaning aunt who's had too many sherries before Sunday dinner. Hey, Boo needs an organizing principle and a stern editor. Despite the popularity of the book and Oscar-winning screen version, its audience is narrow.

Few would dispute "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a canonical Southern novel or that Universal's 1962 adaptation, penned by Horton Foote, is an admirable film. The commercial success and enduring resonance of both has a great deal to do with timing. Exploring this aspect of the "Mockingbird" phenomenon is the doc's strength, even if there's much more that could be done to illuminate the literary achievement in the context of American history or to understand the movie's role in post-war cinema.

Made without the cooperation of the elusive authoress, Hey, Boo is based on Murphy's book "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird." Celebration is the operative word judging by Murphy's disjointed film, which lacks its own stylistic ambition and artfulness. Loosely organized under title-card chapter headings such as "Scout," "Alabama," "Atticus," "Capote," "Hollywood" and, finally, "Boo," it flits about trying to find ways to go beneath the surface and uncover some secret concerning the book and Lee herself.

Among the "luminaries" Murphy interviews about the power of "Mockingbird" are: Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, politician/activist Andrew Young, singer Roseanne Cash and writers Wally Lamb, James McBride, Rick Bragg, Mark Childress, Richard Russo, Anna Quindlen and Scott Turow. Their connections to Lee and the book vary, as does the amount of light they shed. Lee's voice is absent, since she hasn't given a substantive interview to the press in 45 years. Hearing her 99-year-old sister Alice reflect on sundry matters is a highlight. Her raspy-with-age, heavily-accented drawl evokes volumes about their hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and the way of life Lee so vividly describes in the novel.

The way Murphy goes about her task betrays her two-decades-worth of experience as a producer for CBS News. Indeed, Hey, Boo plays like an extended segment of TV's 60 Minutes. Sequences in which interviewees read a passage from the novel while a page of text is highlighted and the relevant clip from the Hollywood movie is shown are rather hackneyed. And do we really need to hear what a sampling of middle-school students think about the book? 

All told, however, she delivers enough of the goods to render the documentary respectable if staid. It's solid on the genesis of the manuscript, superficially accurate regarding race relations and the book's role in the Civil Rights movement and decent in terms of Lee's biography. The most mildly sensational parts involve Lee's friendship with her childhood neighbor Truman Capote, the model for the character of Dill. Not only does their complicated relationship allow Murphy to insert snippets from 2005's Capote and 2006's biopic Infamous, it also enables her to include testimony about the In Cold Blood author's licentious behavior at Studio 54 in the 1970s. Its supposed relevance is that it illustrates their friendship and Capote's full literary promise, founded because he was jealous of Lee winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Of course, Lee herself hasn't published any follow-up to "Mockingbird" or any fiction of any kind; and the most noteworthy insight Murphy offers in Hey, Boo involves Lee's subsequent lack of productivity. In the 1964 interview referenced above, Lee stated her ambition as a writer was to be "the Jane Austen of South Alabama." She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams with her first novel and, as her sister Alice relates, she felt she had no place else to go but down.

Although it's a shame Nelle Harper Lee hasn't shared more of her vision, if "Mockingbird" is the totality of it then it's arguably a full legacy. And there's no substitute for immersing oneself in the world she created and amplified by reading the book. Watching Oprah's eyes well up as she recites a passage from it or hearing contemporary novelists voice their admiration and awe just isn't the same thing.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director, Screenwriter, Producer: Mary McDonagh Murphy
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 82 min
Release date: May 13 NY/LA

 

Tags: Mary McDonagh Murphy
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