On occasion the circumstances of an author’s own life hold a fascination similar to their creative work, and Harper Lee is certainly no exception. Her Jim Crow 1960 courtroom novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, not only achieved classic stature and won a Pulitzer, but according to Mary McDonagh Murphy, the writer/director of the Harper Lee biopic documentary ‘Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird,’ in a significant way contributed to jump-starting the emerging Civil Rights Movement back then. Though likely substantially less so than Murphy gives Lee credit for.
The story of a black man railroaded in a Deep South court and slaughtered for a crime he didn’t commit, To Kill A Mockingbird initiated a groundbreaking and fearless challenge to Southern racism and segregation, especially considering that it emerged from the pen of a shy and awkward Alabama novice female writer. And has been heartfelt enough in its clarity and impact to be embraced through the ensuing decades by adults and children alike. And Murphy’s focus on the book’s historical eloquence and its profound influence on other socially conscious writers and activists, makes for powerful viewing.
Less effective, and really a distraction from this impressive film, are thorny issues raised but never resolved by the filmmaker. In particular, persisting rumors that Lee, whose book was originally rejected and sent back for rewrites many times over the course of years, may have actually had at least a partial ghost writer she never recognized or credited – namely Truman Capote, who grew up next door to her and was a lifelong friend. That is, until the airline ticket agent and moonlighting writer won that Pulitzer.
Murphy dismisses any such scandalous claims outright, without providing any solid evidence the matter calls for. The filmmaker attributes Capote’s estrangement from Lee as simply jealousy, without persuasive basis. And on the other hand fails to address Lee’s subsequent withdrawal from the public eye for the rest of her life, her lack of any further writing ever again despite her acclaim, and her own unwillingness to confront the charges publicly.
And Murphy’s primary, very weak defense of Lee includes insistence from her older sister. Along with a fellow writer and colleague who is certain Lee crafted the book quite on her own, because the style matches a letter she once wrote to him. Yet he doesn’t offer a single sentence as evidence. And the fact that Lee is still quite alive and has no comment concerning this movie about her, whether within or outside the film, doesn’t help matters either.
Likewise theoretically questionable, is the filmmaker’s sidebar revelation that Lee didn’t really most identify with her young tomboy protagonist, Scout. But rather the mute town outcast Boo (a very young Robert Duvall’s first role), just because Lee’s personality is more akin to the story’s designated secondary character hermit.
All of which would appear to render ‘Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird’ quite an intriguing investigative inquiry on trial in its own right. And similar to the novel, raising more questions than answers.
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