Making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival which is currently in full swing, and was recently acquired by Tribeca Film for simultaneous VOD/theatrical release this week is the feature documentary Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story – a penetrating, truly heartbreaking film about good old-fashion American racial intolerance, its consequences and legacy.
The short story goes: In 1966, Frank De Felitta produced an NBC News documentary about race relations in Greenwood, Mississippi – a town famous for its lynchings of African Americans (plantations still existed, whippings were commonplace, as were church bombings), as tensions caused by the growing Civil Rights movement were at a near peak – focusing primarily on the people of Greenwood.
55 years later, Frank’s son Raymond De Felitta follows in his father’s footsteps with Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, which we could call an update to his father’s original, almost as a compare/contrast of how much (or how little) has changed over that 5+ decade period.
Driving that conversation is the hopeful yet tragic story of Booker Wright, an illiterate black waiter in an all-white restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi, who spent his days running his own bar on the other side of town, where Frank De Felitta interviewed him about working at the restaurant. “Some people are nice; some are not. Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim. Some call me nigger. But no matter what they call me, always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile–although you cry on the inside… so that my children can get an education and not suffer what I suffered,” Booker revealed in the taped interview.
And those few words, delivered unabashedly and with candor by a calm, friendly, smiling Booker, highlighting the realities of living in a racist society, appeared on tape in the NBC News documentary De Felitta (the father) produced, which forever changed the lives of Booker and his descendants, more than 40 years later.
Frank’s son Raymond DeFelitta returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of this brief, fateful interview.
What might seem like a relatively mild response to a query in the present day, was far more explosive in Booker’s time and place, and ultimately fatal. And throughout the documentary, interviewees wrestle with whether or not Booker Wright’s revelations were really innocent, or if his seeming graciousness was simply a veneer that hid the true resolve and radicalism that lay within, implying that he was fully aware of what the consequences of his words would be.
But ultimately none of that mattered at the time, because it didn’t take long after that for Booker’s world to begin crumbling; he lost his job; his restaurant on the other side of town was burned down; and he was beaten badly by a police officer; and eventually, was murdered.
50 years later, enter Frank’s son Raymond, as well as Booker Wright’s grand-daughter, Yvette Johnson (the film’s co-producer), who meet for the very first time, after she found him while searching for the NBC documentary that Raymond’s father made (he put that original film on the web, and she, as well as many others who’d been looking for the film, came across it).
And together, the pair functions as almost an investigative team, screening Raymond’s father’s footage to the town’s locals in the present day (some of them are featured in the 50-year old news feature), and attempt to tackle whether the city has experienced any real change in racial segregation and tolerance.
And while there is indeed some definite advancement, the film makes it very clear that there is still a lot of work to do, and progress to be made, before any conversations about equality and racial harmony can be had.
Yvette Johnson continues to refer to her grandfather Booker as an “accidental activist,” given the community upheaval and the beginnings of a social shift created by his willingness to appear in the NBC News documentary, and speak candidly about matters that, considering the time in which he lived, would’ve been unheard of, coming from a black man.
And if he had any regrets, Booker certainly didn’t wear them on his sleeve. Reminiscent of the fictional story in last year’s award-winning, box office smash drama The Help, the match had been struck once he agreed to appear and speak in the NBC News feature, and he was likely very well aware of what the potential consequences of his actions would be, with the future society his children will grow into, being his primary concern.
Except unlike The Help’s saccharine ending, Booker suffers, and suffers some more, eventuallly the worst of all fates.
The documentary is full of individual, personal stories, all connected by this single thread – the Booker Wright news feature, which is played back a number of times throughout the film’s running time, in black & white, almost hauntingly like an apparition.
“The time has come… I gotta talk the way I feel,” was Booker’s reply when Frank DeFellita warns him of the potential ramifications of his actions (appearing in the news reel).
And those rather simple, but powerful words speak to what was at the core of the then burgeoning Civil Rights movement; or in the words of Jesse Jackson soon after the assassination of MLK, “I am somebody.”