Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird (First Run Features, NR)

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The greatest accomplishment of Hey, Boo may be its ability to show you how this decision made sense from Lee's point of view.

 

 

In 1960 Harper Lee published her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, to great critical and popular acclaim. Mockingbird became an immediate bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck in 1962. That's quite a debut, and Lee's novel proved to have legs as well, selling over 30 million copies worldwide (in over 40 different languages) and becoming a staple of English classes. Harper Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and that richly deserved honor was based entirely on the quality and influence of this book, because she never wrote another.

The second half of this story has fueled intense speculation over the decades following publication of Mockingbird. Did Lee complete other novels she chose not to publish? Was she suffering from some illness, mental or physical, that made her a recluse? Most perniciously, was Mockingbird really the work of her close friend Truman Capote? These and other rumors are laid to rest in Mary Murphy's workmanlike documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee declined to be interviewed for it—although the film does incorporate excerpts from her last public interview, in 1964—so Murphy relies on interviews with friends and family (including Lee's 99-year-old sister), archival materials, and interviews with writers and celebrities (Oprah, Tom Brokaw, Anna Quindlen, Richard Russo) about what this book means to them.

The film's big revelation is that there is no revelation; Harper Lee never wrote another novel because she chose not to. She did not like being in the spotlight, considering herself more like Boo Radley than Scout, and having achieved the writer's dream of perennial backlist status (meaning: never having to write for money again) took advantage and lived the rest of her life as she chose. The greatest accomplishment of Hey, Boo may be its ability to show you how this decision made sense from Lee's point of view. Along the way it examines issues old and new—Lee's relationship with Truman Capote, the gift that allowed her quit her job and write for a year, her father A.C. Lee as the model for Atticus Finch—in a satisfying if not exactly revelatory manner. Murphy seems determined above all to respect Lee's desire for privacy, making her a sort of anti-Errol Morris. This admirable decision means that Hey, Boo leaves many aspects of Lee's life unexamined while concentrating on her book and its influence on American culture.

Hey, Boo is the kind of film whose natural home is on DVD rather than in theatres because while it's well done and on a topic that will interest many people, it's also conventional in style, modest in ambition, and organized more like an illustrated lecture than a feature film. It will be shown in a few cities around the county (you can see the complete list, which does not include St. Louis, at http://www.firstrunfeatures.com/heyboo_playdates.html) but my advice is to get the DVD and trade it around, because it broaches lots of issues that you'll want to discuss after seeing it. It's a natural purchase for schools as well and a good adjunct to reading the novel.

Extras on the disc include extended interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne Cash and James McBride, and a biography of the director. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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