Two classics of American literature. Both instantly beloved and honored with Pulitzer Prizes. Each adapted into a wildly popular, Oscar-winning film. And each novelist only published one book.
KUED will air back-to-back films on Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” at 8 p.m., and Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” at 9 p.m. on Monday, April 2.
While the filmmakers approach the subjects differently, both documentaries are entertaining and worth your viewing time.
“Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel” falls into the standard profile format, relating insightful details of Mitchell's life. While there is enough information to help us get to know Lee, “Harper Lee: Hey, Boo” focuses more on the phenomenon of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the social changes it inspired.
Mitchell's writing of “Gone with the Wind” may not of happened without an odd series of events in her life. Despite her family’s objections, she became an Atlanta Journal reporter, one of Georgia’s first women newspaper writers. An ankle injury forced her to quit, and while hobbling around the house on crutches, Mitchell’s husband John Marsh made frequent trips to the library to bring her books to read — until he told her, “Can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
Along with many historical photographs, the documentary features a shot of the couple’s Crescent Apartments, which they called “The Dump.”
Mitchell was outspoken and headstrong, and in her later years risked retaliation to make surreptitious donations supporting the education of African-Americans. But without much supporting evidence, producer-writer Pamela Roberts seems to force the available information to conclude that she was a “rebel.”
“Hey, Boo” is more revealing and absorbing, perhaps because the author lived a guarded life after the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Now 86 years old, Lee has refused interviews since 1964.
Following a book she authored on Lee’s work, Mary McDonagh Murphy, the producer-writer-director, interviewed family and friends and an array of authors who comment on the novel’s power and influence. Lee's 99-year-old sister Alice, still working as a lawyer, speaks of their childhood and her sister’s decision to withdraw from the limelight.
Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey are also interviewed and list the novel among their all-time favorite books.
Brokaw relates, “One of the most telling lines that I hear from early pioneers in the Civil Rights movement is that ‘We had liberated not just black people; we liberated white people.’ I think that Harper Lee helped liberate white people with that book.” Calling “To Kill a Mockingbird” “our national novel,” Winfrey comments on her reaction to the film version: “I remember starting it and just devouring it, not being able to get enough of it, because I fell in love with Scout. I wanted to be Scout, and I wanted a father like Atticus.”
The documentary also reviews Lee’s friendship with her childhood neighbor, Truman Capote. Both used a second-hand Underwood typewriter given to them by Lee’s father for their early writings. Debunked is any involvement from Truman in Lee’s authorship of her novel. Responding to the rumor, older sister Alice says, “That's the biggest lie ever told.”
Like Mitchell, one wonders if Lee would have written her book without encouragement from an unexpected event. As a 23-year-old, Lee worked as an airline ticket agent, until a couple she had befriended recognized her talent. Broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy gave her a year’s wages as a Christmas gift in 1956, with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”