'Hey, Boo': A New Documentary Explores Why Harper Lee Wrote ... And Didn't

May 12, 2011
Originally published on May 12, 2011 12:49 pm

Even if you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, you may be full-up with all the stories that have poured out this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book's publication. But if you have room for one more, consider Hey, Boo. It's a documentary that will be released in New York May 13, and other cities soon after. Director/writer Mary McDonagh Murphy wanted a chance to have author Nell Harper Lee explained by people who know her well and love her.

Friends and relatives, including Lee's big sister Alice (90 and still practicing law when this was filmed), share anecdotes about Lee's struggle to write the book, the deluge of fame that followed it, and how Lee coped. (One casualty: her friendship with Truman Capote, who, Alice Lee says, was just consumed with jealousy that her sister's little book had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, while his grisly opus In Cold Blood had not.)

Through her interviews, Murphy also reveals why the now 85-year-old Lee never wrote another novel (although she did produce several essays), and why the assumption that she is a recluse is a myth.

Singer Rosanne Cash, civil rights veteran Andrew Young, and writers Alan Gurganis, Wally Lamb, and Anna Quindlen, among others, discuss the effect Mockingbird had on them, on their writing, and on the country. Several people, including Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw, read their favorite passages from the book. It's interesting that very few of the passages are the same, and it's a nice testament to the power of Mockingbird that readers still think it speaks directly to them and their own lives.

The interviews, the family photographs and Lee's astonishing sister all provide an engaging portrait of the town and the times that shaped one of America's greatest writers. Murphy includes a lot of vintage television and radio footage in her film, and one of its delights is hearing Harper Lee explain her ambitions in her own voice. Before she stopped talking to reporters, Lee had a chat with a local radio host, and discussed what moves her to write.

"Well, my objectives are very limited," she told WQXR in 1964. "I think I want to do the best I can with the talent that God gave me, I suppose. I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly, and that is small-town, middle-class Southern life. There is something universal in it. Something decent to be said for it, and something to lament, once it goes, in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama."

Would that all our home towns had the same benefit.

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