Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

For everyone, but especially Southerners

I never, ever cry at movies. Theater, yes; the ballet, yes; books, yes; but for some reason I don't understand, not movies.

This afternoon I shed more than a few tears in a movie. It's called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird. I went into New York specifically to see it, not because I thought it would be especially noteworthy in itself, but because it featured Michael and Joy Brown, my parents' dear and special friends, who for fifty-plus years kept the secret that they, one Christmas Eve in the late 50s, gave Harper Lee the money to take off a whole year from working so as to write a book. The first printing was 5000 copies and the rest is history.

The part about the Browns is at the beginning, and I don't think it's just my bias that leads me to say they are charming and articulate, enabling us to glimpse the qualities of discernment that led them to place their bet. The first part of the documentary (made by Mary McDonagh Murphy) is delightfully interesting, but it begins to gather dramatic momentum about halfway through. Ms. Murphy has gathered an eclectic group of people to read bits of the book and comment, and the way she has assembled their contributions is artful. She has directed (and edited) them to say just so much and no more. These commentators include Tom Brokaw, Allan Gurganus (Oldest Confederate Widow), Wally Lamb, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Meacham, Rich Bragg, James McBride (The Color of Water) and many others. To be sure, none of these are A-list writers, but almost all of them have something of interest to say about Mockingbird's place in our culture. The readings are illustrated with clips from the movie, but very delicately, so as not to overwhelm the text.

Personally, I had never found the book to be as ground-breaking as these various speakers declare. Harper Lee is not Flannery O'Connor. However, I found myself beginning to tear up about halfway through, when the varous commentators--especially the Southern ones--began to talk about the civil rights era. I had forgotten that Harper Lee wrote the book before the movement really exploded. As the respected Birmingham native and historian Diane McWhorter (Carry Me Home) explained, it was an extraordinary thing for a young small-town Southern woman to do. One of the white Southern speakers, in particular, referred to her own wrenching experience of breaking away from the customs of her upbringing and defying her much-loved parents in a way that unleashed feelings I had suppressed for a long time.

There are interesting sections about Truman Capote, about making the movie, and especially about Harper Lee's fabled reclusiveness (she has not given an interview since 1964). Particularly illuminating was the observation that the character of Scout is not Harper Lee's picture of herself, as one might naturally conclude. Instead, the self-effacing, retiring writer is found incarnate in the person of Boo Radley.

The climactic moments of this documentary--for me at any rate--came close to the end when two emblematic lines from the book were read aloud in their original context. I am not as great a fan of the movie as many people are (too many phony Southern accents), but the clip from the movie that was shown when Scout says "Hey, Boo" is astonishing. The young Robert Duvall, without uttering a word, shows why he is to this day one of our greatest actors. And the expressions playing over the face of the little girl who plays Scout are ineffable, as is her delivery of the line.

The other line was read--magnificently. it must be admitted--by Oprah Winfrey. I had not read the book or seen the movie since the early 60s, so I had forgotten.

"Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Maybe I am making too much of this. I admit that my feelings are engaged at a very deep level here. However, the civil rights movement is fading from memory today, and ritual references to Rosa Parks (who never said her feet hurt) and ritual replays of the second half of the "dream" speech will never bring it to life. I'd like to think that young people today would be awakened to it in a fresh way by seeing Hey, Boo.