‘Hey, Boo’ Reveals More About the Woman Behind ‘Mockingbird’20 May, 2011 By: Ashley Ratcliff
Nelle Harper Lee used her upbringing in rural Alabama as the inspiration behind To Kill a Mockingbird — her first and only published novel. With nearly 50 million copies sold as it approaches its 51st year in print, the book’s indelible imprint on American readers is ever present.
Inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, director Mary McDonagh Murphy has produced Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ First Run Features will release the documentary July 19 (prebook June 14) on DVD at $24.95.
“It was really my adult rereading of the novel that made the greatest impression on me,” Murphy said. “It was so good, and it had so much in it [that] I began to find it hard to believe I’d ever read it before. Unlike a lot of childhood favorites or adolescent classics, it’s the kind of novel where you can keep going back and … keep finding more and taking more from it. To me that was a very rare thing.
“As long as there are issues of judgment or tolerance or intolerance, it’s always going to tell a story we know is true,” she added.
Mockingbird is the story of a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman, and his daughter, Scout, who refuses to see color while living in the racially charged South. The book is set between 1932 and 1935, the years Scout grows from 6 to 9. Lee was the same age, growing up in Monroeville, Ala.
Hey, Boo centers on the mysterious woman behind the bestselling book, who has stopped speaking to the press and rarely makes public appearances. However, Murphy said one of the biggest misconceptions about Lee, now 85, is that she’s a recluse.
“She doesn’t hole up in her house like [Mockingbird hermit] Boo Radley,” the filmmaker said. “She’s lived a perfectly full, rich life. She just doesn’t want to talk to reporters about it.”
While Murphy did reach out the Lee for the documentary, she only was able to meet with her agent — even TV host Oprah Winfrey couldn’t land an interview with the sought-after author.
“I did not expect much. I was able to speak at length with her sister (Alice Finch Lee) and also with her closest friends, Joy and Michael Brown. I think they add quite a lot to the record,” Murphy said. “So absent being able to ask her questions, I thought I got as far as anybody’s gotten.”
Had Murphy spoken directly with Lee, one of the many questions she would ask is: To what extent was race on your mind?
“A lot of writers just write, and they don’t always know what they’ve got till much later,” Murphy said.
Among the film’s strengths are clips of radio interviews from the early 1960s. Murphy acknowledges that hearing Lee’s Southern twang adds an element of depth of her personality.
“What’s amazing is how beautifully she speaks,” she said. “She speaks in perfect sentences and paragraphs. I considered that a real coup.”
Sharing how Mockingbird made a lasting impression on their lives in Hey, Boo are Winfrey, journalist Tom Brokaw, civil rights leader Andrew Young and authors such as Adriana Trigiani, James McBride, Wally Lamb and Scott Turow, among others.
Murphy’s book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ is a compilation published in June 2010 derived from footage that didn’t make it into the film, which includes extended interviews in the bonus material.
“Harper Lee’s story is a story of creativity and determination,” Murphy said. “She worked for a very long time on that novel. It did not just jump out of the typewriter and into the bookstore. When you add all those things up and you see what she did, and then what the novel did, it’s just a very stunning achievement.”