Review: TFF 2012: An Accidental Activist? Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

In 1965, African-American waiter Booker Wright gave an impromptu interview to filmmaker Frank De Felitta, who was visiting Wright’s hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi to do a documentary for NBC on racism in the South.

De Felitta met with Booker to hear his famous recitation of the complicated menu at the whites-only restaurant where he worked, and Booker, dressed in his immaculate waiter’s uniform, complied. The menu-recitation is charming, charismatic.

When Booker finished his recital, he began speaking unprompted. What then followed was a blistering and honest diatribe about what it was like to live in the racist South, and what Booker’s experience of racism was as a Black man.

“The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” Booker said, grinning benignly.

In one fell swoop, Booker Wright ripped the veil off of polite denial in his community. De Felitta spoke to Booker afterward and expressed his concern about using the footage, due to its explosive nature, and the repercussions Booker might face. Booker said, “It’s time.”

And now it’s time to learn what happened to Booker Wright, in the documentary Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, directed by Raymond De Felitta, son of the original filmmaker, and co-produced by Yvette Johnson, Booker Wright’s granddaughter.

The two set out on two separate quests, really, but with the same goal. De Felitta wanted to find out what happened to the extraordinary man featured in his father’s film (the only copy of which was a dusty reel in Frank De Felitta’s New York apartment), and Johnson, who never knew her grandfather (he was murdered in 1973). Johnson wanted to revisit Greenwood and talk to people who knew him and try to get some answers.

Over the course of the film, we learn about Booker Wright through the comments of his daughters, his friends and neighbors. He was an entrepreneur. He owned his own cafe, called Booker’s Place (which was burned to the ground by angry whites after the NBC documentary aired). He couldn’t read or write, but was all about education for his own children, and even helped to bring Head Start to Greenwood, purchasing an old school bus to transport the kids to the learning center. He was well-liked, but all of that changed once the documentary aired. In essence, he had spoken the truth about the hypocrisy of whites who were nice to him but called him “boy,” or never remembered his name, despite the fact that they met him numerous times.

The whites in the town of Greenwood all insisted to De Felitta that they had very good relationships with “their Negroes,” and that there were no problems. But Booker spoke of the pain of his status, and how he learned to cover it up with a smile. A cop pulled Booker over after the documentary aired and beat him so badly Booker was put in the hospital.

The original filmmaker, Frank De Felitta, 90 years old, expresses regrets about using the footage, since he knew the repercussions would be swift and horrible. As a documentary filmmaker, he felt an obligation to tell the truth. He knew he hit paydirt in 1965 when Booker Wright unloaded his heart for the camera. But what is the obligation an artist has to his subject? Was it worth it to have Booker Wright’s life torn apart for a minute of terrific footage?

Booker Wright’s daughters have a different perspective. Although they miss their father, and revered him as a man, they are proud of him for speaking out, proud of his guts and fortitude. Yvette Johnson, who knew little about her grandfather, always assumed he was an “accidental activist.” She hadn’t seen the footage (no one had seen it since its first airing), and so hadn’t known the context of the interview. A couple of years ago, Raymond De Felitta uploaded his father’s original documentary to YouTube, and when Yvette Johnson finally saw it, she realized that no, her grandfather was no “accidental activist.” He knew exactly what he was doing. There was no “accident” about it.

Shot in black-and white, interspersed with elegiac and repetitive shots of Greenwood, Mississsippi and its environs, run-down and caught in time, Booker’s Place is full of revelatory interviews, as well as original footage from the 1965 documentary. People share their memories of Booker Wright. Some white people remember him waiting on them, and how entertaining he was as a person.

Booker Wright was murdered. A customer in his rebuilt cafe came in with a shotgun and killed him. There are theories that the killer was put up to it by angry whites in the town, a situation not at all unheard of, but no one knows.

The structure of the film is investigative and questioning. One interview leads to another, and another. Yvette and Frank hold a town hall-style meeting in Greenwood to show the film to the townspeople. Both blacks and whites are in attendance. A discussion ensues after the film. There are some tense moments, as when a white man stands up and says he was “raised by a black woman” and he loved her like his own mother. A black man in the audience balks at this. While this black woman was raising you, he said, she was forced to neglect her own children. The atmosphere is still fraught, yet a small space opens for people to talk to each other. It’s a start.

Perhaps this is what Booker Wright would have wanted. Judging from the original footage, and Booker’s urgent “rendition of the humiliation of his everyday existence” (in the words of Frank De Felitta), he knew the truth, he lived the truth, and waited his whole life for an opportunity to let it out. Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, with its gentle energy and relentless pursuit of that truth not only questions the responsibility of a filmmaker towards his real-life subjects, but lets those real-life subjects emerge, all on their own.

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