Special Report

50 Years of To Kill a Mockingbird

The novel, the movie, and now a documentary about its reclusive author.

By 7.1.11

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Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird" is an enjoyable new film documentary recalling the iconic 1960 novel and 1962 movie about race and small town life in 1930s Alabama. The author, now age 85, famously disappeared from public life not long after her explosive success, and never published another book. The movie naturally tries to explain.

The documentary includes numerous politically correct interviewees, such as Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and Andrew Young, discussing Mockingbird's importance, but not irritatingly so. Oprah tears up when recalling the scene when the blacks confined to the court house balcony all stand in homage to white lawyer Atticus Finch, who valiantly sought justice for an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. But the scene, so classically portrayed in the movie with Gregory Peck as Finch, merits emotion.

Most interesting among the interviewees is Harper Lee's 99-year-old sister, who is Alabama's oldest practicing female attorney. Neither woman ever married, and they still live together in their father's last house, carrying on a fairly normal social life for still vigorous elderly women in Monroeville, AL. Harper's sister often functions as her spokeswoman, although she declined to help with a biography of Harper published several years ago. In a raspy but clear voice, Alice Finch Lee recalls her sister's lifelong talent for story-telling and explains Harper's later profound discomfort with nearly instant fame. She also comments on the eventual slow collapse of Harper's almost lifelong friendship with an infamously peevish and self-destructive Truman Capote.

Capote partly grew up next door to Harper Lee, and Mockingbird's precocious little Dill Harris is based on Capote as a boy. As adults, Lee was as normal and low key as Capote was bizarre and flamboyant, facilitating a social and professional partnership. Lee served as Capote's researcher when he travelled to Garden City, Kansas, to write about the murders of the Clutter Family for his bestseller In Cold Blood. Capote had earlier introduced Lee to literary society in New York, where she worked as an airline agent while penning occasional articles. Most importantly, Capote commended Lee to Broadway producer Michael Brown, whose confidence in Lee's talent persuaded him to gift her one year's salary to write what became Mockingbird.

Brown and his wife are charmingly interviewed in the film and remain very fond of their old friend. Mrs. Brown does remember her incredulity when the publisher launched Mockingbird with 5,000 copies, having wondered if even 500 would purchase a somewhat cutting edge book about racial tensions in a pre-civil rights Southern town. Mockingbird would go on to sell tens of millions. The film adaptation, for which both Rock Hudson and Spencer Tracey were briefly considered before Peck's masterful selection, is nearly as popular as the novel. Lee was very involved in its production, largely pleased with the result, and tearfully observed that Peck in his courtroom garb successfully captured her revered father, right down to his "little paunch."

Unfortunately, the film spends little time telling about Amasa Coleman Lee, the real life small town lawyer, successful businessman, newspaper owner, state legislator and Methodist lay preacher. He did not embrace civil rights for blacks until late in life.

But throughout his life he was respected by whites and blacks in Monroeville for integrity and fairness. In 1919, he had unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder, according to Harper's biography. They were found guilty, hanged, and mutilated. Mr. Lee never accepted another criminal case. Memories of that case, though before her own birth, must have inspired Harper Lee's novel. Married to a difficult woman with a "nervous disorder" whom he out-lived by 15 years, Mr. Lee invested his emotional energy in his children. Harper Lee's mother goes unmentioned in her novel and is only briefly cited as deceased in the movie. Mr. Lee lived long enough to appreciate his daughter's stunning success, even meeting Gregory Peck, though dying before the movie release. Harper later gave Peck her father's watch, a copy of which he had caressed, as Mr. Lee had in real life, during the film's courtroom scenes.

Monroeville's court house, faithfully re-created for Peck in the movie, is now a museum, visited by 20,000 visitors a year, anxious to understand Mockingbird and its publicly unavailable author. Harper Lee did emerge in 2007 to receive the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. She continues to refuse interviews, but Oprah recalls a lunch with her several years ago. Harper would not consider appearing on Oprah's show, predictably. But she did explain her avoidance of public life. Popularly associated with Mockingbird's tomboyish narrator daughter of Atticus Finch, Harper explained she actually identifies with Boo Radley, the oddball neighbor recluse who emerges only to save the children from an assailant at the film's climax. Robert Duval, in his own film debut, portrayed Boo, who is escorted home by the Finch daughter after his heroism, never again to be seen. 

Harper Lee likewise performed her great feat of a best-selling, and culture shaping novel, then happily disappeared. Undoubtedly faith played some role in her contentment. Her Methodist pastor is interviewed in the documentary. And she helped build a new building, with a John Wesley statue, for her congregation with Mockingbird profits. Lee's dignity and good sense contrast with her friend Truman Capote, who likewise never completed a novel after In Cold Blood. But instead of retirement, he resentfully melted into decades of liquor, drugs and nasty public squabbles, with all the world watching. Lee probably chose wisely, although the mystery about her persists. Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird" intelligently analyzes but does not pierce that mystery.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.