“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” is a tragic tale about a black Mississippian who lost his life after television gave him 15 minutes of fame. The doc is also a micro-history of the dark days of the segregationist South, as seen through the life and death of a man who’s described as an accidental activist.
Booker Wright worked as a waiter in Lusco’s, a restaurant for “whites only” and operated his own eatery on the other side of the tracks in Greenwood, Mississippi, In 1965, he agreed to an interview with Frank De Felitta of NBC News. Those were the days when the networks made hour-long documentaries, and paid people to work on them full-time. With gently restrained drama, Booker Wright recited the menu of the restaurant for whites where he worked, which didn’t have a printed menu, and then he talked about how he dealt with white people. He said he kept smiling, and smiled even more sincerely when the white people were rude. Even in those days, this was tame, compared to what Dick Gregory was saying. Yet that expression of sincerity got Wright fired from his job at Lusco’s (which is still there), and beaten by the police. When he was later shot in his own restaurant in 1973 by a black man whom Wright had ejected earlier that evening, white sympathy for Wright’s elimination may have helped the killer avoid a death sentence.
Why was such a seemingly gentle observation so inflammatory? Director Raymond De Felitta takes us back the 1960’s, when whites ruled with impunity and blacks who crossed the line were punished brutally – and Northerners who came down to change this were also brutalized. “Booker’s Place,” which builds on the documentary that De Felitta senior made almost 50 years ago, sees the Old South through the eyes of Wright’s children, and through the testimony of those old enough to remember much more.
Wright was an extraordinary man – kind, enterprising, humble, and brave. His willingness to speak his mind destined him for punishment, which makes the documentary all the more heartbreaking and infuriating. Even today, blacks and whites in Greenwood state that they knew the name of the policeman who beat Wright, and was never charged. Let’s not forget that this was a state where black families agreed to deliver their sons to the police station, because they feared what the police might do to them on the way there.
De Felitta shot his film in a vivid black in white, in homage to his father and to the photographic era of Booker White. Black and white suggests something else. Is it also a hint that the ancien regime still rules, that race relations may not have changed all that much, in the state where, not so long ago, Trent Lott, the Majority Leader in the Senate, praised the segregationist Citizens Councils that sent armed men out to intimidate and kill blacks and thanked them.
Nonetheless, De Felittta senior blames himself for setting the presecution of Wright into motion.