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Documentary Examines To Kill a Mockingbird

BU alum and filmmaker is tonight’s Cinematheque guest


Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1950s and 1960s, documentary filmmaker and screenwriter Sandra Jaffe witnessed both Jim Crow racism and the nascent civil rights movement. As a child attending a predominantly white school, she says, Harper Lee’s story of racism in 1930s Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird, had a huge impact on her.

About a decade ago, Jaffe (CGS’72, CAS’74, COM’86) began toying with the idea of making a documentary about the influence of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1960 novel on American politicians, civil right activists, and celebrities. The book, famous for its lessons about morality and social injus­tice, is required reading for most students across the country, and she wanted to explore why it remains so influential. So she set out to interview a cross section of Americans for her film Our Mockingbird, among them veteran TV journalist Katie Couric (Hon.’11), Congressman (and civil rights leader) John Lewis, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, and actors Mary Badham and Philip Alford, who played Scout and Jem in the 1962 Oscar-winning film adaptation.

But the documentary, which took eight years to complete, took a turn after Jaffe learned that two high schools in Birmingham—one black, one white (her old high school)—were collaborating on a stage production of Lee’s novel.

Broadcast earlier this year on PBS, Our Mockingbird uses Lee’s work to explore issues of race, class, and justice then and now, with the interviews interspersed with footage of students at the two schools working on their stage production. Tonight, Jaffe will be on campus to talk about and screen Our Mockingbird as part of the Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

Jaffe has won screenwriting awards from the Writers Guild of America and the Massachusetts Film Office and has been a screenwriting instructor at Northeastern since September 2012. She spoke with BU Today about the origins of Our Mockingbird, growing up in the South, and her film’s effect on audiences.

BU Today: How did you get the idea for this documentary?

Jaffe: I grew up in Alabama and To Kill a Mockingbird had been a part of my life for a long time. At some point, I realized that this story and these characters within it were important to a lot of people—there were so many references to Mockingbird in the culture that it seemed to still be influencing people so many years after it was published—and there was something there to explore. When I finally gave myself time to really think about what a film about this would look like, I decided to take the plunge.

I read that you’ve said there was a pivotal moment while making your film. Can you share that?

I told a friend that I was about to start this project, and she mentioned that a student teacher she supervised at a Boston high school was doing a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird. I observed this teacher’s class and was pleased to find that the issues and themes discussed were all the ones I wanted to explore. When the bell rang and the students bolted, I realized that I hadn’t actually spoken to any of them about their reaction to the book. So I stopped a student and asked him if there was anyone in the story he could relate to. He said that he could relate to Tom Robinson, because when he was a child, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened and he was falsely accused by his peers of being a terrorist just because he was from Saudi Arabia, and he would go home at night and cry. So that moment confirmed to me that I needed to make this film.

After I started my film, I heard about a production of the adapted play, To Kill a Mockingbird, by two high schools in Birmingham: Mountain Brook, all white, and Fairfield, all black. I got permission to include the story of that collaboration in the film. Since I grew up in the same white suburb, a bedroom community of Birmingham, I knew that this would be a great opportunity for these students.

You grew up during the civil rights movement, when Birmingham was still enforcing Jim Crow laws. What do you remember about those years?

I was pretty young, so I was fairly insulated from what was really going on, but yes, when I was a child there were separate facilities for whites and blacks and the signs loom large in my memory. But the single biggest memory for me was the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four innocent girls while they were attending Sunday school. Even though I was young, I knew about that. We had an incident at our temple as well a few years earlier where dynamite was found—fortunately, before it went off.

Was it surreal returning to your old high school?

Returning to my old high school was interesting in the sense that it made me wish I could have experienced what the kids in the film experienced—collaborating with a group of students with whom one normally would have no contact on an intense project like putting on this play. I know that interacting outside the bubble of my community would have had a significant impact on me. So I was happy that these students had this experience and that I got to see it.

How have audiences responded to the film?

Audiences have been very responsive, but sometimes they are a bit stunned at the end; by that I mean they are so moved that they have a hard time speaking. At one screening of a group of school superintendents, I thought that everyone in the audience had horrible colds because of all the sniffling I heard. When the lights came on, I realized that they had all been in tears. I think when that happens, it’s because the film reminds the audience how far we still have to go on matters of race and justice in this country.

What about the two schools you worked with? Have they continued the conversation about diversity and race relations after seeing your finished piece?

I would imagine that they are talking about these issues a lot, because to not do so would be remiss given our history and what is still going on today regarding race. They are lucky to have the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which sponsors programming around these issues. As for the two schools collaborating again, I have had conversations with people from both schools and I know that they want to do it. I also know that the logistics were daunting. But it’s doable. I think communities all across the country, not just in Alabama, would benefit from the type of collaboration that the two teachers, Pat Yates and Patsy Howse, pulled off. 

Lee’s recently published Go Set a Watchman, written 60 years ago, explores how the same characters deal with later turbulent events in the civil rights movement; its depiction of Atticus Finch, the hero and moral center of Mockingbird, shocked readers. What’s your opinion of the book?  

I thought it was interesting to read Lee’s first version of her novel and to see how it was the genesis of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’m glad that the book I read as a child and have reread many times as an adult is the one that remains the classic.

Sandra Jaffe speaks and screens her film Our Mockingbird tonight, Friday, December 4, at 7 p.m., at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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