On July 14, more than five decades after her debut novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” first appeared, 89-year-old Harper Lee’s long-awaited follow-up “Go Set a Watchman” will finally be published. On that same date at 8 p.m., PBS World Channel’s “America Reframed” will air Sandra Jaffe’s “Our Mockingbird,” a documentary that shows how Lee’s beloved tale continues to engage communities in discourse about the unresolved issues of race, class, and justice. The film follows two Alabama high school classes — one white, one black — as they collaborate to stage a production based on the book. Boston based, but raised in Birmingham, Ala., Jaffe has been teaching screenwriting at Northeastern University since 2012. Here are some of the films that helped shape her cinematic and political sensibilities.
Documentaries have a way of opening a window to a bigger world, as happened when Jaffe saw Michael Wadleigh’s film about this triumphant epitaph to ’60s optimism. “Growing up in Alabama pre-Internet was like living light years away from popular culture,” she says in an e-mail. “I had heard about Woodstock and though I could not attend, I was determined to see the film. When I heard it was being shown a few hours away in Atlanta, I convinced my parents to allow this pilgrimage to occur. The movie did not disappoint — Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the rest performing for half a million hippies in the mud fields of Yasgur’s farm. Seeing the documentary wasn’t the same as being there but it allowed me to feel less like an alien when I arrived in Boston to attend college.”
Four Little Girls (1997)
After the recent murder of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., this heartbreaking documentary by Spike Lee evokes rage, grief, and a sickening sense of déjà vu. “Growing up in Birmingham, I knew about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four Sunday school girls,” says Jaffe. “But Lee’s access to their families and friends makes the victims’ lives real and their deaths all the more tragic. The film helped the city’s transformation from ‘Bomingham’ to a place with an ongoing dialogue about civil rights. A few years ago during an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing, I watched ‘Four Little Girls’ again with an audience. It had not lost its impact.”
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
“Not a documentary,” notes Jaffe about Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Lee’s novel, “though akin to one in its ability to capture the truth about race and justice in small town Alabama. Because of this film’s eloquence and humanity, the story of a falsely accused black man found guilty of raping a white woman reverberates across the world. Everyone has their own reasons for loving this movie. My reasons were many and cannot be separated from my love of the book from which it was adapted. That’s why I made ‘Our Mockingbird.’”