CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
First Run Features
On May 4, 1961, Harper Lee's American literary icon To Kill a Mockingbird was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Fifty years later, filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy explores the phenomenon To Kill a Mockingbird became in an extraordinary First Run Features release called Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Unraveling many of the mysteries around Lee's life, ranging from her friendship with Truman Capote to why the acclaimed author has never published again, Murphy constructs simply yet masterfully one of the year's best documentaries by building the film as much around the social impact of To Kill a Mockingbird as she does around its reportedly reclusive author. Virtually any true fan of American literature is aware that with To Kill a Mockingbird Lee created what was both an instantly beloved classic and a classic that has endured. Hey Boo, perhaps two of the most lasting and impressionable words ever written in a novel, and it is the masterful way that Murphy and a host of interviewees deconstruct Lee's words that helps to mold this emotionally and intellectually satisfying documentary into such a fine film.
Although Lee herself has not given an interview since 1964 (and did not for this film), Murphy has extensively and thoroughly researched through news archives, television footage, the few interviews that Lee did give and has put Lee's life and her novel into context by placing it squarely in the middle of the Deep South where it is set and the pre-civil rights era that it immediately preceded to help us understand why To Kill a Mockingbird is a film that crosses economic, geographical and racial boundaries with its heartfelt simplicity and innocence, its bold and visionary politics and its influences on both Blacks and Whites from around the United States.
Murphy beautifully incorporates interviews, at times commenting on the personal impact of the book and at times reading passages from the novel, from such notables as Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, James McBride, James Patterson, Wally Lamb, Andrew Young and Oprah Winfrey among others. Yet, the master stroke for Murphy's film may be her interview with Lee's eldest sister, Alice, a 99-year-old practicing attorney, who provides both feeling and insight into her sister, her sister's work and the many mysteries that surround Harper Lee.
Murphy, a former producer for CBS News who has won six Emmy Awards, has previously directed two fine documentaries including Cry for Help, about adolescent suicide and depression, and Digital Days, about the internet's impact on the newspaper industry. Yet, at least at this point in her career, Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird may very well be her career defining film.
The best documentaries, and they are few and far between, manage to weave together entertainment, information and a sensory experience that literally envelopes its audience. Hey Boo is such a documentary, a film that is both love letter to what may very well be THE great American novel and a well researched exploration into the life and personality of its author. Hey Boo is nothing short of a mesmerizing experience, beautifully photographed by Rich White and featuring the perfect blend of past and present, intellect and emotion. There are moments in Hey Boo, especially for those deeply connected to the novel, that will leave you in tears while other moments will have you announcing to no one in particular "I never knew that."
It seems only fitting that a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and its resulting Oscar-winning film should result in such an extraordinarily satisfying and entertaining full-length documentary. Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird is opening May 13, 2011 at New York's Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Theatres as part of its limited nationwide run. If given the opportunity, do yourself a favor and go see it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic