Though she had vowed never to make another documentary, Sandra Jaffe had an idea that wouldn’t leave her alone: a film about “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the beloved, controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that explored the depths of racism through the eyes of a young narrator.
But Jaffe, who lives in Watertown, wondered how the message of the book would hold up nearly a half-century since its publication and a thousand miles from its setting. So she went to a Boston school and listened as students read and talked about the book. Then she asked whether they felt a connection with any of the characters.
“Yes, I can relate to Tom Robinson,” she remembers a student from Saudi Arabia answering, referring to the black man falsely accused of rape in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. “When the terrorist attacks happened, I was unjustly accused of being a terrorist.”
Jaffe’s film, “Our Mockingbird,” previewed locally this fall at the Arsenal Center for the Arts as part of the “One Book, One Watertown” program. Other events in the series, stretching across two months, included a Southern dinner and a performance of traditional black spirituals.
Jaffe hopes to finish the film’s postproduction work and final fund-raising by January.
“It’s a lens to look at the issues of race and class and gender, somewhat, and justice — then and now,” Jaffe said. "And that part of it hasn’t really changed. That’s what I set out to do.”
Her documentary follows two high schools — one black, one white — near Birmingham, Ala., as they join forces to perform the play based on “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Jaffe also interviewed public figures, including some who talk about the play, from television host Katie Couric, whose grandmother came from Alabama, to G. Douglas Jones, who as the region’s US attorney prosecuted the reopened case against two former Ku Klux Klan members charged, and eventually convicted, in the killing of four young black girls in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
Jaffe grew up just outside Birmingham in a time when Jim Crow laws were still enforced. She came of age during the civil rights movement, and left Alabama for college.
But as a graduate film student at Boston University in her later 20s, searching for a documentary topic, her thoughts kept returning to her home state. She ended up creating “Jazz in the Magic City,” a film about a group of black musicians trained to read music in the 1920s and 1930s by the printing instructor at Birmingham’s only black high school. Many of the men got jobs with big bands but later returned to teach music in the city’s schools.
The documentary took five years to make, including time spent raising money, a daunting process. For more than 20 years afterward, Jaffe wrote and consulted on screenplays and taught screenwriting.
Still, she kept coming back to the idea of making another film about Alabama. After she finished a project about six years ago, she started thinking more seriously about “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Lee’s novel depicts a Depression-era Southern town that convulses with the arrest and trial of Robinson, a black man unfairly charged with raping a young white woman. Lee’s narrator, Scout Finch, is almost 6 years old when the book opens, and she watches as her widowed father, a lawyer, agrees to defend Robinson.
The Boston high school student’s connection to Robinson reassured Jaffe that “To Kill A Mockingbird” still transcends its Southern setting and place in history. She traveled to Monroeville, Ala., Lee’s hometown, and watched the Mockingbird Players perform the play based on the book. Then Jaffe heard that her old school, Mountain Brook High School, was staging the play.
“I called up the drama teacher and told her who I was and what I was doing,” Jaffe said. “And she said, ‘You were wondering how you were going to cast the black characters, weren’t you?’”
Since the school has remained as white as it was when Jaffe was a student, the drama teacher invited a black high school in a nearby town to perform with them. Jaffe filmed as the two schools rehearsed and performed.
“I think it was a self-selecting group of kids,” she said. “I think that everybody there wanted to go on a journey. They didn’t know what to expect, but they were ready for a journey.”
Jaffe said the students were their “very best selves” throughout the production of the play. In her documentary, one white actor tells her that he has been changed by the experience, even though he could not yet comprehend how.
The book is still relevant, Jaffe believes, because students tend to read it as they’re developing their own moral code.
“They’re constantly faced with the question of, ‘Am I going to stand up against the mob? Am I going to stand up against my friends? Am I going to stand up against bullying? Who’s going to speak for the people that don’t have any voice?’ ”
When Jaffe was raising money for her first documentary, she talked to a potential contributor who discouraged her from including archetypal black-and-white footage of Birmingham’s painful civil rights history.
“She said, ‘We really don’t want to see any more of those hoses and dogs,’ ” Jaffe recalled. And her movie didn’t show the infamous clips of police officers turning high-powered fire hoses and unleashing dogs on civil rights protestors, including children.
But “Our Mockingbird” does.
People often ask her how the high schools in Alabama could still be so segregated.
“Have you ever been to Roxbury?” she asks. “And Dover? It’s all over the country. And kids are not getting educated on an even playing field. That is no more true in Alabama than it is anywhere else.”