Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those novels that seemed to arrive serendipitously at a time when popular audiences most wanted, and perhaps even needed, it. It’s tempting, if you haven’t read the book in a while or know it only by cultural osmosis, to assume that To Kill a Mockingbird’s unquestioned status as required high school reading indicates the sort of cut-n’-dried moral tidiness that’s usually promoted in public education. Lee’s achievement, however, is the ambiguity and beauty of her spare prose, which allows her characters a dignity that’s absent from many writers’ treatment of the troubled legacy of the American South.
The inevitable film adaptation a few years later starring Gregory Peck is, of course, a legend in its own right, a film that, while predictably broader, still respected and preserved much of the novel’s tone, which could perhaps be described as melancholic nostalgia. Both Lee and the subsequent film’s makers achieved a purity that’s rare in popular art: They were inside and outside of the material at once, inside the characters while still maintaining a perspective that rarely editorializes. Both the novel and the film hold up as remarkably coherent reactions to the Civil Rights movement.
Capturing the beauty of one work that’s universally accepted as a masterpiece, much less two in this case, can be difficult, as it’s easy, and tempting, to resort to sentimentality in an overeager effort to convey said work’s effect on you. Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is spry and enjoyable—an unapologetic tribute that doesn’t leave you feeling had. Filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy alternates between the story of Harper Lee and her eventual writing of To Kill a Mockingbird (the latter of which is told with an unusually frank insight into the collaborative tedium of the rewrite process), and a series of interviews that afford high-profile admirers such as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw, as well as authors such as Scott Turow, Richard Russo, and, most vividly, James McBride, the opportunity to praise the novel’s legacy and to even recite their favorite portions of text. Murphy also includes, through vocal performances, compellingly suggestive vignettes pertaining to well-known lore such as Lee’s friendship with Truman Capote and, of course, Lee’s voluntary disappearance from the media world after the Gregory Peck film’s release in 1964.
A lot of narrative territory for sure, and Hey, Boo, at a succinct 80 minutes, manages to cover most of it while steering clear of too many glaring omissions (I could have used more on Lee and Capote’s working relationship, but that’s personal preference). Hey, Boo is so appealing because it’s obviously and undeniably a work of commitment and passion, and this particularly influences the celebrity testimonials, which are refreshingly free of self-consciousness and vanity. Hey, Boo isn’t a major film, and it doesn’t tell you much that you haven’t heard in one way or another already, but it’s an effective document of fan love and a stirring tribute to a story’s ineffable potential to make sense of the nonsensical.