Movie Review: New Doc Debunks Myth of Harper Lee

One hot summer day in 1957, a 31-year-old airlines reservations agent from Monroeville, Ala., named Harper Lee walked into the offices of J.B. Lippincott with a manuscript for a novel she called Atticus. It had been rejected by 10 publishers already, but an editor who liked it decided to take a chance and invest two years in polishing the book with the aid of the frightened but enthusiastic unknown author. To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published on July 11, 1960. Nobody knew on that day that 50 years and 50 million copies later, a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary phenomenon and world-class motion picture would have influenced and devastated generations of readers. The touching story, as rich in lore as the muddy streets of the little Southern town of its setting, comes to life in a remarkable documentary, Hey, Boo, by Mary McDonagh Murphy. 

With no help from the elusive, reclusive author, who hasn’t given an interview since 1964, filmmaker Murphy still amazingly manages to get to the heart of the book, why it affects people of all colors, religions, social backgrounds and degrees of education, and why it remains relevant today. There are scenes from the 1962 movie and of Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch, passages read by everyone from Tom Brokaw to Oprah Winfrey, and interviews with various writers who have been galvanized by the book, including Harper Lee’s neighbors and friends and a grown-up Mary Badham, who was 9 years old when she played the funny, curious, lonely tomboy Scout. Harper Lee still writes “Hell no!” on top of every request for comments and returns to sender. But her sister Alice, now 99, does the talking for her, conjuring memories of life during the Depression in a small Southern town, and telling revealing stories about their friend Truman Capote, who was the model for the fragile but tough character named Dill. He was later instrumental in convincing Miss Lee to move to New York and become a writer, enlisting her aid in accompanying him to Kansas to research the Clutter family murders that led to In Cold Blood, and later dumping her out of jealousy when she won the Pulitzer Prize and he did not. The moronic myth about Capote actually writing To Kill a Mockingbird instead of his gifted friend is convincingly debunked.

The film is fascinating in the ways it reconstructs the past. Ms. Lee’s childhood home is now a Dairy Queen, but the old courthouse, which became the centerpiece of the book and film, is still there–exactly as the author’s beloved father, a respected lawyer and newspaper editor who inspired the character of Atticus Finch, left it, his stately ghost still haunting its hallways. It is now a museum that attracts thousands of tourists who arrive in Monroeville annually, asking a million questions about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. The film also demonstrates with devastating newsreel footage and first-hand interviews the impact the book made on the Civil Rights movement.

So many people have read so many things into the book–an exposé of racism, a tender rendering of growing up isolated, a brave indictment of man’s inhumanity to man, and a testimonial chronicle of the conflicts between blacks and whites, parents and children, ignorance and enlightenment, good and evil, and the town and its people–that the world has waited breathlessly to see what Ms. Lee would come up with next. But there has been no second novel. (Can you imagine anything worse or more pointless than a sequel?) The pressures of fame have been monumental. The phony scenario of celebrity has been abhorrent. Afraid to disappoint the world and especially herself, the iconic author has nothing to prove. She did it better than anyone else, so why struggle to do it better? And so Harper Lee disappeared within herself. She wasn’t Scout at all. She’s really Boo Radley, the shy, silent, misunderstood town weirdo Robert Duvall played in the film who befriended young Scout, saved her life, then vanished behind closed blinds forever. Hey, Boo solves the mystery of Boo, and also, to some degree, the mystery of Harper Lee. It’s a fine film,
well worth seeing.


Running time 82 minutes

Written and directed by Mary Murphy

Starring Tom Brokaw, Roseanne Cash, Jon Meacham


Movie Review: New Doc Debunks Myth of Harper Lee