Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Facts of Fiction: A Story That Gratifies America

Novelist Harper Lee in 2010
Despite receiving a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in March, Nelle Harper Lee has continued as something of a recluse since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her 1960 instant bestseller was among the earliest in the annals of American literature to tackle the issue of racism. The popular movie that came out two years later, adapted by Horton Foote and starring Gregory Peck, signified a daring entertainment in an era still plagued by widespread intolerance.

There’s a chance to learn more about the publicity-shy writer in Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, a documentary that will be released theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans on May 13. The timing is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the book’s Pulitzer Prize, awarded during the same month in 1961. The title of this film refers to a mysterious and reclusive male character in the novel, set during the 1930s in Lee’s native Monroeville, Alabama. Although almost consistently avoiding media attention for five decades, she did once tell Oprah Winfrey, “I’m really Boo.” But the author also modeled Scout, the little protagonist whose single father is a principled defense attorney, on her own small-town upbringing. Her mother Frances Cunningham Finch Lee died in 1951, which left lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee to raise his children alone.

Mary Murphy, the documentary’s director, was a CBS producer for 20 years, turning out Emmy-winning programs on a variety of topics. “I reread Mockingbird as an adult and was blown away all over again,” she recalled during a recent phone interview from New York City. “I pitched the idea for a show about it to my CBS bosses, who said, ‘Without Harper Lee, there’s no news here.’ Talking with her seemed unlikely, of course. But I began to realize the story was the novel.”

Lee –  who survived a 2007 stroke and turned 85 on April 28 this year – has been famously unwilling to meet with journalists. But controversy swirled around last month’s announcement that Penguin Press would publish a supposedly semi-authorized biography by former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills at an unspecified future date. The semi-sequestered wordsmith immediately distanced herself from The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, insisting no such cooperation had ever been provided. Her older sister, practicing lawyer Alice Lee, said the same thing, yet apparently had already signed a 2011 letter attesting to the veracity of Mills’ claim that both nonagenarians participated in her research efforts.

Lee with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film
Murphy, who incorporates Harper Lee’s voice from a 1964 radio interview, started making her “first thoroughly independent film all by myself” five years ago. Sneak previews began in 2010, to celebrate a half-century since publication of Mockingbird. The autobiographical tome, Lee’s only book, has enduring appeal. Four decades before Harry Potter and his fellow wizards-in-training began battling Voldemort, Scout was an inquisitive tomboy standing up against overwhelming societal prejudices.

As on the printed page, the movie’s Scout (Mary Badham – director John Badham's sister) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) are being raised in make-believe Maycomb by their single father, Atticus Finch. The character – clearly a tribute to Amasa Coleman Lee but with a last name drawn from the maternal side of the family – defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman amid the bigotry of the Deep South. Scout’s friend Dill (John Megna) is certainly based on Truman Capote, Lee’s actual next-door neighbor who shared use of her first typewriter when they were kids. Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall) is said to have been inspired by Monroeville’s Alfred “Son” Boleware, a psychologically damaged fellow who never left his house.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird
In 1961, Lee told Life Magazine that the case depicted in her fiction was “a composite of all the trials in the world – some in the South."  Historians have pointed out that her dad was appointed by a judge to represent two African-American men convicted of murder in 1919, mutilated and hanged. As always in such instances, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Although not defended by Amasa Lee, another black citizen of Monroeville was tried for raping a white woman and died in an asylum after going mad in jail.

The happier ending of Mockingbird makes Americans feel good about themselves, despite how such events frequently turned out in the country’s vicious legacy of intolerance. Perhaps we do need narratives that encourage the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln hoped for humanity, as long as those sagas are not formulated in denial. But it’s important to remember that Lee portrays the people of color in Maycomb as passive. She must have been aware that, 100 miles northeast of Monroeville, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparked when fellow Alabaman Rosa Parks refused to move to the “colored section” of a public vehicle. Nonetheless, heroic behavior is reserved for noble Atticus and his kin, which may have been more logical in the time frame of the book. In 1931, nine black teenagers were sentenced to hang for an alleged rape in Scottsboro, Alabama. The Communist Party supported their appeals. African-American activists soon would be leading the way in the struggle for equality, however, albeit often accompanied by some white comrades.

The “Scottsboro Boys” and their attorney, Samuel Leibowitz
Murphy doesn’t exactly address this conundrum, which is common in cinematic tales about race relations such as Mississippi Burning (1988), a revisionist perspective that gives the FBI unwarranted credit for championing an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan’s 1964 murder of three young idealists registering black voters. On the other hand, pivotal 1960 was only the start of an awakening – evident in the first season of AMC’s Mad Men – for the nation’s ruling class. Enlightenment remains an arduous process. “To Kill a Mockingbird is a brave book to have written when Harper Lee wrote it,” legal-thriller maven Scott Turow contends in Hey Boo. Civil rights veteran Andrew Young explains that he did not read the novel because the subject matter “was too close to me.”

While Murphy was never able to connect with Harper Lee, she includes extensive commentary from feisty Alice, now 99. Also in the mix: a Manhattan couple, Michael and Joy Brown, who gave the fledgling novelist enough money one Christmas to quit her job as an airline reservation agent and concentrate exclusively for one year on writing. She was just 31 when, after rejections letters galore, Lippincott took a chance, nurtured her through two years of fine-tuning and put out a beloved classic that still sells about one million copies a year.

The Browns’ generosity resulted in an iconic work of art. Hey Boo taps numerous luminaries, from singer Roseanne Cash to broadcaster Tom Brokaw to Alabama-born scribe Rick Bragg, testifying about the ways in which Mockingbird resonates for them. “You would be hard-pressed to come up with another novel that has these kinds of vivid characters and this kind of suspense,” Murphy suggested. “Not to mention an important message about race, childhood and love.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


  1. I believe Harper Lee turned 86, not 96, this year. Wasn't she born in 1926?

  2. Anonymous - Thank you. We had no intention of adding more years to her life. But she actually turned 85 in April 2011. It's now corrected. We appreciate your feedback.