DocEdge 2011: “Hey, Boo!”: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird

“Hey, Boo!”: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird
USA | 2010 | Dir. Mary Murphy | English | 78 mins.

That this film intentionally opens with silly overstatement from talk show behemoth Oprah—on how “if there was a National Novel Award, this would [win] it for the United States”—should signal both its tone and perhaps also its professionalism. Unfortunately, only the first of these sticks: after the opening gambit, the rest is bathed in Oprah’s warming, uncomfortably saccharine glow—and any semblance of professionalism (or even competent editing or archival-compilation skills) is thrown out the window. Interviewees include populist writers such as Richard Russo, James McBride, Willy Lamb, but it is in the remarkable anecdotes and raspy voice of Lee’s nonagenarian older sister that the film eventually locates its true meaning and most profound sentiment. Semi-retired newsman Tom Brokaw (and his slippery, slurred speech) makes several appearances, each more incongruous with the surrounding material than the last.

The filmmaker’s amateur attempts at mixing too many disparate types of footage (16mm, 35mm DVD images and newly-sourced interview material) along with poorly-framed newspaper clippings and still photographs makes the film an aesthetic nightmare. (Not to mention the liberal use of Lucida Handwriting for all of its captions and titles.) The film’s inclination to donate as much of its too-long running time to the behind-the-scenes trivialities of the filming of the 1962 film adaptation as to a biography of its subject or the issues of race her book raises betray its muddled focus.

If it were shorter all around, and had much of its puffery reduced or removed, the film would be more palatable, but then you’d be left with something that’s under an hour long. At best, given its construction and tone, this belongs (in a shorter cut) as a piece of supplementary material on a DVD reissue of the film. At worst, it stands as a completely wasted opportunity to examine, with a level head and some temporal and critical distance, the social issues raised by the novel, as well as how and why it was written.