Some widely acclaimed artists, while their significant achievements warrant honorary films, are nonetheless rather dull film subjects. Harper Lee, the reclusive author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and, sadly, nothing else of note in the past 50 years, proves to be one of those subjects in Mary McDonagh Murphy’s tribute, “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Lee has kept a low profile since her last radio interview in 1964, and her post-“Mockingbird” life has been relatively uneventful. Published in 1960, “Mockingbird” was touted for bringing the call for racial equality to the national forefront, at a time when civil rights had not yet permeated the segregated South that Lee grew up in. It’s also a richly detailed account of a charmingly impetuous, six year-old tomboy—based on Lee herself—growing up before our eyes. Scout, the book’s narrator, idolizes her father Atticus, the unwaveringly dignified defense attorney for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. She learns about the benefits of staying true to convictions, even unpopular ones; she also confronts her own prejudices by befriending the neighborhood bogeyman, Boo Radley, who initially frightened her. The book is dotted with lively characters based on Lee’s real-life acquaintances, including her next-door neighbor Truman Capote.
“Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and the next year, it was adapted into a widely praised film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. With all her success, Lee was more or less able to live off her proceeds. She never wrote another novel, only a few scattered essays, but this dearth was due to her discomfort with fame and need for privacy, not any creative failing. Despite a few serious setbacks—her falling out with Capote due to his jealousy, most notably—Lee never dealt with the severe highs and lows of fame, because she willingly cut herself off from its trappings.
In short, Lee seems to be the most normal, well-adjusted artist of all time, which doesn’t exactly make for scintillating art. Perhaps realizing the lack of emotional turbulence in Lee’s post-“Mockingbird” years, Murphy fills “Hey, Boo” with scenes of random celebrities—Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and the authors James McBride and Scott Turow, among others—alternately reading from and gushing over the text. The actress Mary Badham—who played Scout in the film—chimes in with her fond memories. A middle school class is filmed analyzing the book. All of this is touching but rather bland. The PBS-like approach—still photographs, omniscient, scholarly narration, sound clips of old letters and manuscripts read aloud—makes “Hey, Boo” play like a one-hour educational film shown to reluctant students to pique their interest.
There are also glaring omissions regarding some of the controversy that formed around “Mockingbird.” In 1963, several libraries and schools banned the book because of its racial slurs and mention of rape, to Lee’s chagrin. In the 1970s, the book was condemned in some circles for being too soft on racism. Neither subject is broached in “Hey, Boo,” although the black activist Andrew Young recalls that black southerners generally didn’t flock to the book because “there was too much real horror going on” in their communities. While it’s likely that the book has few naysayers these days, more interviews with early detractors of “Mockingbird,” or at least some sense of the struggles the book faced due to its radical subject, would have made “Hey, Boo” more stimulating.
That said, the admirers that Murphy has assembled are certainly an eloquent bunch, and some of them offer memorable, poignant insights. At one point, Turow makes the keen observation that “there are perhaps no people like Atticus Finch, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be like him.” The author Anna Quindlen describes Lee as “a grown-up Scout who didn’t go to the dark side of being a girly girl.” And Lee’s 99 year-old sister Alice, still practicing law, is the feistiest interviewee of the lot. Her decrepit voice almost exactly resembles that of the Wicked Witch of the West, and it’s painfully sad to listen to. But Alice clearly shares her sister’s wit, and she gets the film’s biggest laugh— she describes the child version of Capote as “that slow kid next door.”
(photo: Harper Lee; Getty Images / Harper Collins)