Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Documentary Explores Cultural Impact of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about growing up amidst racism and intolerance in the Depression-era Deep South.

Independent filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy has produced a documentary called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, which was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 7.

Murphy has also written a companion book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the interviews she did for the film with fans of the novel (and the subsequent 1962 Oscar-winning film) such as Oprah Winfrey, historian Diane McWhorter, novelists Scott Turow and Wally Lamb, veteran television journalist Tom Brokaw, and people from Harper Lee’s life, including her elder sister, 99-year-old Alice Lee. (Harper Lee herself has not granted an interview since 1964.)

Why the Novel Remains Popular
To Kill a Mockingbird remains as popular as it is, particularly among teachers who assign it to their classes year after year, because the novel “novel is about so many things, and it means so many different things to different people,” Murphy told me in the lobby of the Regal Cinemas on Charlottesville's downtown mall after her film was screened.

“It has indelible characters,” she said, and “it has a social message without being preachy.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is “about race, of course,” Murphy added, but it’s also “about class. It’s about justice; it’s about tolerance. It’s also about childhood; it’s about love; it’s about loneliness -- and it’s an incredible novel of suspense.”

Impact on Civil Rights
The book also had an impact on the civil rights movement, which gained steam shortly after its publication and especially after the movie version, starring Gregory Peck as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, who is assigned to defend a black man against false charges of raping a white woman.

Murphy explained that just as an earlier “successful model,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “gave abolitionists fuel in the Civil War, many people have said that To Kill a Mockingbird provided important ammunition in the civil rights movement.”

The fact that the book “was written by a young white woman from the Deep South,” Murphy continued, did a lot “in ways that no treatise, no newspaper editorial, no politician could do.”

The reason, she said, was that To Kill a Mockingbird “was art, it was popular, it was told from the point of view of a child, and it allowed white Southerners and Northerners and everyone else to question the system and the way it was.”

While Murphy's documentary film, Hey, Boo, does not yet have a distributor, Murphy hopes that it may be broadcast as early as January or February 2011, perhaps as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS, with the possibility that it will be available on DVD or in cinemas sometime after it airs on television.

Fortunately, Scout, Atticus & Boo, Murphy’s companion book, was published by HarperCollins in May and is available in bookstores and through Amazon.com and other on-line booksellers.

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Examiner.com on November 15, 2010.)

Video of Mary Murphy's Q&A with the audience after the screening of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, is below.  There are three segments, each about 10 minutes in length.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III

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