So many documentaries come out every year that it isn’t possible to keep up with them all. I watched Booker’s Place (now open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, and available nationwide On Demand) because I admire its director, Raymond De Felitta, who most recently gave us the piquantly original comedy City Island. And I’m awfully glad I did.
I had no idea that Raymond’s father, Frank De Filitta, made award-winning documentary films for NBC News in the 1960s. Recognizing this, his son started posting some of his father’s work online. The one that resonated with many people was Mississippi: A Self Portrait, made in 1966. In it, an illiterate black waiter at a popular restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi unexpectedly opened up for the camera, and told what it felt like to be mistreated by some customers, while always maintaining a smile. This impromptu monologue may have cost him his life.
The younger filmmaker picks up the story in the production notes for Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story: “In a peculiar way, Booker Wright is responsible for the film being made, even though he died in 1973. For without Booker’s appearance in my father’s film, his granddaughter might not have been moved to investigate his life. And without his granddaughter’s desire to uncover the truth about his life, I wouldn’t have been tempted into exploring the role my father’s film played in his family’s life. The somewhat stunning confluence of events that brought this film into being could only have happened in the age of the Internet. Wishing to expose my father’s superb documentary work from the 1960s to more people, I posted his 1966 documentary Mississippi: A Self Portrait on YouTube. My producing partner, David Zellerford, saw it and was shocked and moved by Booker’s stunning speech—so much so that he determined to find out what became of Booker and his family. In so doing, Yvette Johnson—Booker’s granddaughter—was finally able to view the piece of film featuring her courageous grandfather. (She had heard about the legendary appearance he made on NBC News but the film had been buried in the vaults for years and had remained unseen for four decades until I posted it.).
“So Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story became a journey for three creative partners—myself, Yvette, and David. All of us had personal reasons for discovering more about Booker’s life and why he chose to put himself in the glare of a hostile spotlight. My father’s courage in including Booker’s speech in his film also had dark ramifications—as we discovered when we began to investigate the circumstances surrounding his murder.
“What does a documentarian owe his subjects? Is the truth—spoken plainly and in clear sight of harm—always the right thing to show? Was my father’s decision to include Booker’s speech—which he knew would have a severe impact on his subject’s life—the correct one? What is a non-fiction filmmaker’s moral obligation to his subjects and to his audience?”
The exploration of these issues is precisely what makes the documentary so compelling, and relevant, even half-a-century after the film that inspired it was broadcast. My admiration for both generations of filmmakers, Frank and Raymond De Felitta, is boundless…matched only by my regard for Booker Wright and his articulate granddaughter. I urge you to see Booker’s Place, as it offers much food for thought; check your cable provider’s On Demand lineup. The film also opens theatrically in Detroit this weekend. Finally, you might mark your calendar for May 20, when NBC’s Dateline is scheduled to devote its entire show to this subject, hosted by Lester Holt.