The documentary of Judge Jim Thomas's career will likely be entitled Hey Asshole!.
"Miss Jean Louise, stand up…your father's passing."
I was in the seventh grade when my class read To Kill a Mockingbird; the teacher (who was my mom, but that's another story), liked to read passages aloud so that we could hear and feel the rhythms of the prose. Not only did it make the book come alive, but it made the unique Southern-ness of the book come alive as well, so much so that the book's near-universal acclaim seemed to us not so much amazing as inevitable. Speaking as it does from the perspective of a child just starting to figure out that the world seldom works as we think it should, the book is not just a well-crafted tale, but it's also a perfect bridge from juvenile to adult literature. That acclaim, more than anything else, is the true subject if director Mary McDonogh Murphy's Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Let's get the big question out of the way first: No, Harper Lee did not break her forty-eight year old streak and give Murphy an interview. In the absence of what certainly would have been the greatest interview "get" in recent history, Murphy at least brings a couple of new voices to the party: Michael Brown (a successful Broadway composer in the Fifties) and his wife Joy were friends of Harper Lee when she worked in New York City; for Christmas in 1956 they gave her enough money for her take a year off from her job taking airline reservations and write full time. In the years that followed the novel's publication, Harper Lee split time between living in New York City and living with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Both the Browns and Alice agreed to be interviewed for the project, and between the three of them, we get a slightly better picture of Harper Lee. Those expecting some sort of cosmic revelation about Harper Lee's motives, personality, influences, or credit rating are likely to be disappointed—and to be fair, the film's title does lead you in that direction. Murphy finesses that failing with an interesting insight—when Harper Lee initially wrote the novel, she saw herself as Scout, but over the years, she began to see herself more as Boo Radley, who having given of herself, simply prefers to stay in the shadows from here on out. It is perhaps too romantic a notion, but there's certainly at least a grain of truth there. It also allows us to come to terms with the simple fact that Harper Lee will forever remain one of modern literature's greatest ciphers.
When not focused on Lee, the film examines the novel's enduring appeal. To that end, the film includes interviews with a host of writers and personalities, including Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, and Rosanne Cash, all of whom talk about the things that make the book or film so memorable. Many of the writers are from the south, such as Mark Childress (Crazy in Alabama), fellow University of Alabama alumnus and Malleteer. Many of the interviewees talk about specific scenes that stick with them, many even reading the passage in question; just as it did when I first read the book all those years ago, hearing passages, even single lines out loud bring the book alive. The interviews are contrasted with archival footage that illustrates more clearly exactly what the world was like when the novel was written and published, providing a better context for explaining the appeal.
The discussion of the film adaptation parallels that of the novel itself, but also looks at how specific scenes worked, how Gregory Peck approached the role of Atticus, and so on. Much of the discussion is built around an extended interview with Mary Badham, who played Scout. Notably missing is Robert Duvall, who inaugurated his film career with his portrayal of Boo Radley.
Technically, the disc is solid; the video is sharp (save the archival footage), and the audio is crisp and clear.
In many ways, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird is perhaps little more than a valentine to Harper Lee's novel. Fortunately, not only is it a good valentine, but the subject is more than worthy of its affections.
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