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TV Watch: Documentaries Look at Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 2, 2012
I  had a difficult time watching “Hey, Boo,” the documentary about Harper Lee airing tonight on PBS. It kept showing scenes from the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” (based on Lee’s novel), and I kept misting up when it did.  (Atticus leaving the courtroom, for heaven’s sake! The final revelation of Boo Radley. How could anyone not be moved?) “Mockingbird” is one of my favorite movies, and based on a book I have read many times. Indeed, while PBS is pairing the Lee documentary with one about Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With the Wind,” I argue that while “GWTW” is, to many, a loved book, “Mockingbird” is a great one. Problematic, yes, as I recognized the last time I read it (while taking a course on how to teach such books to middle-schoolers), but great nonetheless.
Maybe my feelings about “GWTW” and “Mockingbird” affected my view of the two documentaries, but I found the Lee piece much better than the one on Mitchell. The Mitchell documentary runs a little under an hour, and in that time is especially hampered by some cheesy re-enactments; it becomes most interesting only in its later stages, dealing with Mitchell’s evolving racial attitudes, which found her donating (albeit secretly) significant money to Morehouse College for scholarships; it cannot help but make you wonder what else she would have done had her life not been cut short when a car struck her. “Hey, Boo” is more thoughtful, particularly in the way it grapples with not only the writing of “Mockingbird” but with what the book means, how it resonates, what it says not only about race in the South but about class. It draws on other novelists affected by the book, as well as people like Oprah Winfrey, Rosanne Cash and Tom Brokaw, to reflect on its meditation on fathers and daughters, and small-town life, as well as the big issues; even the matter of Lee’s not publishing a second novel brings us back to “Mockingbird,” where the character most like herself may be not Scout but Boo.
As good as the documentary is, I do wish it had dug more into how “Mockingbird” handles race, particularly in the way the characters are shown. (A criticism of “GWTW,” that the African-Americans are caricatures instead of characters, is one that can also be argued about “Mockingbird.”) And its need to cover Lee’s biography thoroughly leads into a rather long digression about her friendship with Truman Capote which is intriguing but veers away from the stronger currents in the production.
Still, I was reminded yet again of all that is valuable in “Mockingbird,” and have no doubt I will read it again. And that I will find far more worth considering than “GWTW” contains.
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