Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird: Let this fine documentary reawaken your conscience

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird: Let this fine documentary reawaken your conscience

For everyone, but especially Southerners

I never, ever cry at movies. Theater, yes; the ballet, yes; books, yes; but for some reason I don’t understand, not movies.

This afternoon I shed more than a few tears in a movie. It’s called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird. I went into New York specifically to see it, not because I thought it would be especially noteworthy in itself, but because it featured Michael and Joy Brown, my parents’ dear and special friends, who for fifty-plus years kept the secret that they, one Christmas Eve in the late 50s, gave Harper Lee the money to take off a whole year from working so as to write a book. The first printing was 5000 copies and the rest is history.

The part about the Browns is at the beginning, and I don’t think it’s just my bias that leads me to say they are charming and articulate, enabling us to glimpse the qualities of discernment that led them to place their bet. The first part of the documentary (by Mary McDonagh Murphy) is delightfully interesting, but it begins to gather dramatic momentum about halfway through. Ms. Murphy has gathered an eclectic group of people to read bits of the book and comment, and the way she has assembled their contributions is artful. She has directed (and edited) them to say just so much and no more. These commentators include Tom Brokaw, Allan Gurganus (Oldest Confederate Widow), Wally Lamb, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Meacham, Rich Bragg, James McBride (The Color of Water) and many others. Almost all of them have something of interest to say. The readings are illustrated with clips from the movie, but very delicately so as not to overwhelm the text.

I found myself beginning to tear up about halfway through, when the various speakers, especially the Southern ones, began to talk about the civil rights era. I had forgotten that Harper Lee wrote the book before the movement really exploded. As the respected Birmingham native and historian Diane McWhorter (Carry Me Home) explained, it was an extraordinary thing for a young small-town Southern woman to do. One of the white Southern commentators, in particular, referred to her own wrenching experience of breaking away from the customs of her upbringing and defying her much-loved parents in a way that unleashed feelings I had suppressed for a long time.

There are interesting sections about Truman Capote, about making the movie, and especially Harper Lee’s reclusiveness (she has not given an interview since 1964). Particularly illuminating was the observation that the self-effacing, retiring writer is not really most like Scout, as one might think, but Boo Radley. However, the climactic moments–for me at any rate–came close to the end when two emblematic lines from the book were read aloud in their original context, one by (I think) Anna Quindlen, and the other–magnificently–by Oprah Winfrey. I had not read the book or seen the movie since the early 60s, so I had forgotten. The two lines:

“Hey, Boo.”

“Stand up…your father’s passing.”

Maybe I am making too much of this. I admit that my feelings are engaged at a very deep level here. However, the civil rights movement is fading from memory today, and ritual references to Rosa Parks (who never said her feet hurt) and ritual replays of the second half of the “dream” speech will never bring it to life. I’d like to think that young people today would be awakened to it in a fresh way by seeing Hey, Boo.

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