‘Booker’s Place’: A documentary about the purpose, and the incredible cost, of speaking out

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Katherine Jones, Vera Douglas and Yvette Johnson. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

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 had 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, fast, and charismatic.

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

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"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 of them 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), and had started her own online project

She wanted to revisit Greenwood and talk to people who knew him and try to get some answers. The two joined forces.

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 out bringing 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 spoke 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 had 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 yet how he learned to cover it up with a smile. A cop pulled Booker over after the documentary aired and beat him so badly he was put in the hospital.

The original filmmaker, Frank De Felitta, 90 years old, expresses regrets about using the footage, since he had known the repercussions would be swift and horrible. As a documentary filmmaker, he felt an obligation to tell the truth, although he said knew he had 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, had always assumed that he was an "accidental activist." She hadn't seen the footage (no one could see it since its first airing), and so hadn't known the context of that 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. He made a brave choice.  

Shot in black-and white, interspersed with elegiac and repetitive shots of Greenwood, Mississsippi and its environs, looking 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 whites remember him waiting on them, and how entertaining he was.

Booker Wright was murdered. A customer in his rebuilt cafe came in with a shotgun and killed him. There are theories that he 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 and hold a discussion afterwards. Both blacks and whites are in attendance. 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 that. 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 has opened for people to talk to each other.

Perhaps that was 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 that truth, and had 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 toward his real-life subjects, but lets those real-life subjects emerge, all on their own.