Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird is a reader’s paradise not only in detailing the long-reaching and long-lasting influence of quite possibly the most famous American novel in literary history, but also featuring a bevy of authors talking about how it touched them, how it moved them, how it influenced them (Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says that To Kill a Mockingbird is why he is a writer). Watching each talking head do what talking heads are so good at, you remember, “Hey! I read that one novel of his!” or, “Oh, I think I checked one of her novels out of the library last week,” or, “Hey, that book title under that author’s name sounds really interesting!”
So it goes with this reviewer. Anna Quindlen appears and I remember that I pre-ordered her memoir that’s coming out in April. Richard Russo talks about why masterpieces are masterpieces, and I try to remember in which stack in my room I put Straight Man after it arrived in the mail a few months ago. An author named Lizzie Skurnick appears briefly, and under her name is Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. I have to find that book.
This only lasts a few minutes when each author appears, because when they do so again, talking about the history of To Kill a Mockingbird or reading excerpts, noticing the authors (and Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey) turns to wondering about why Harper Lee only wrote this one masterpiece, and then never wrote again. Producer/writer/director Mary McDonagh Murphy wonders the same thing, and interviews friends of Harper Lee’s who sustained her financially for a year while she wrote what was originally called Atticus. We also learn about Harper Lee’s life from her 99-year-old sister Alice, a rare interview indeed and the only insight to be found into Lee herself because she has refused to do interviews for 45 years, and it’ll always be that way. Toward the end of the documentary, Winfrey recounts meeting Harper Lee, and says that when Lee told her that she herself was Boo Radley, that’s all she needed to know. She knew she was not going to get an interview, and that was ok with her. It seemed to be an honor enough for Winfrey to meet Harper Lee, because she gives the most touching reading of the documentary, the scene in which Atticus Finch has lost the case and walks out of the courtroom while the men and women in the balcony stand as he passes.
Murphy spreads out To Kill a Mockingbird like a deck of cards and shows us each card that we should know intimately. We learn about Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee grew up, and the people she knew that became characters in her novel. For example, it is claimed that the only real person in the novel is Dill, who was Truman Capote, who she grew up with next door to her. Atticus Finch is based on her father, who was entirely without ego and was beloved by the town. There is also a look at the time in which To Kill a Mockingbird was published, when the fight for civil rights was exploding, though disappointingly, it is never revealed why the name of the novel changed from Atticus to To Kill a Mockingbird. The obvious answer would be that the novel isn’t entirely about Atticus since it’s narrated by an adult Scout. But perhaps the actual answer lies hidden forever with Harper Lee. Only she would know if she decided to change the title after two years of rewriting it with the guidance of her publisher, or if her publisher suggested the change. We’ll never know that.
Hey, Boo is a potent and poignant reminder of the power of books. A sentence, a paragraph, a scene can seize us and change our lives. While these 82 minutes are all about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, it may trigger reminders about books that have affected us in the same way, and admiration of the longevity of those books in our lives, and those like To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been published for 50 years and sold 50 million copies. It is still taught in classrooms and still passionately discussed (Watch the scenes of classroom discussion and your faith in future generations of Americans will grow). It’s what a great book can do, and Hey, Boo shows that well.
Being that Hey, Boo was released theatrically last year, there’s no concern about picture and sound, both of which are new enough to be bright and clear. There’s a combined 12 minutes of bonus interviews with Mary Badham (who played Scout in the movie and who features prominently in the section of Hey, Boo about the making of the movie), author James McBride, and Oprah Winfrey. An on-screen text interview with Mary Murphy talks about, among other things, what she did in order to get an interview with Alice Lee. And a trailer gallery features Kings of Pastry, Pianomania, Making the Boys, and Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune.
English subtitles are included, which are useful for appreciating the engaging narration that Murphy wrote, showing how passionate she is toward To Kill a Mockingbird, only showing it through her extensive work for this documentary, evident every minute. The DVD itself is yet another example of First Run Features giving just enough in special features, and never too much. An audio commentary would have been overkill because who would want to talk over these gifted, brilliant voices talking about Harper Lee’s brilliance? First Run Features seems to believe in letting a documentary be the loudest voice, and they do it again with this wonderfully unassuming DVD release.