Neely Swanson

“Booker’s Place – A Mississippi Story” [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story- Yvette Johnson with her father, Leroy Jones. Photo by: Nicki Newburger.

“Booker’s Place – A Mississippi Story” is a film by Raymond De Felitta that retraces the steps of his father, NBC News documentarian Frank De Felitta, and the documentary he made in 1966 about the tensions and struggles caused by the burgeoning civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, focusing primarily on the citizens of Greenwood, Mississippi.

Driving through the South in the early 60s, De Felitta felt compelled to make a film about the conditions he saw because it brought to mind the horror he experienced in assisting with the liberation of the concentration camps after World War II – seeing how man could treat his fellow man. The South De Felitta chronicled in 1965 still had a thriving indentured servitude class in share croppers. Plantations still existed and mothers were often separated from their children. Whippings were commonplace, lynchings still occurred and there were more than 600 church bombings that year.

Rediscovering the original 16mm master of the film in his father’s personal archives, Raymond decided to post it on YouTube. It was his producing partner David Zellerford who convinced him that he should find out what became of the protagonists and their families, particularly the family of Booker Wright a waiter who appeared on camera and gave a frank appraisal of what the black man had to do in the South in order to survive. Booker was murdered in 1973 and Raymond was determined to find out if his appearance in the film had anything to do with his death.

The posting of that original documentary coincided with the years’ long search that Booker’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson, a writer, had been conducting to try to find a copy. For many years Johnson had referred to her grandfather as an accidental activist since his appearance in the documentary had led to much upheaval, primarily to him but also to the community. Seeing his forthright discussion on camera about what it took to survive made her realize that there was nothing accidental at all about what became a turning point for the civil rights movement in Greenwood and the surrounding areas.

Booker, a much beloved waiter at one of the town’s finest establishments, illustrated his famous customer greeting to Frank De Felitta, reciting the menu by heart as the restaurant did not publish printed menus of the day’s offerings. Relaxed, open, friendly and always with a gigantic smile, Booker continued unsolicited with his assessment of his customers, some of whom were genteel, polite and respectful… others of whom were quite the opposite. “Always smile,” he exhorts, even if they hurt him inside. Never allow them to see anything but the smile. “The meaner the man, the bigger the smile.” Elaborating further he explained how some would politely call him by his given name, others might call him Boy, Joe, Jim or Nigger. He would always respond with a smile for he wanted more for his children. He wanted them to get an education so that they would not be forced to work the kinds of jobs he did.

Booker was rewarded for his honesty as he knew he would be. He was dismissed from his job, the side business he had built up was burnt to the ground and he was taken out and beaten within an inch of his life by a member of the town’s police force. Hodding Carter III, the great New York Times journalist stated that Booker’s incredible bravery had written his own death warrant. Still, he had no regrets for his actions; his appearance brought the new face of civil rights to Greenwood, Mississippi. There was no going back, even if it got more violent before any progress was made. His daughters would have a better life than him; he would make sure of it.

Revisiting the South of the early 1960s is a horrifying experience. Archival footage of local KKK meetings led by the town leaders and footage of a plantation owner leading the camera crew through the huts of “his negroes,” discussing the qualities of the clearly terror-stricken individuals is chilling.

A trip to modern day Greenwood shows that progress has been made; and yet conditions are still horrifying and the racial divide is Grand Canyonesque. De Felitta the younger was fortunate in finding so many of the original witnesses, including both of Booker’s daughters and many of his friends and neighbors. Even the white revisionists provide insight into the mindset of the recent past. “The Help,” an excellent film still views the era with one eye shut. “Booker’s Place” will open both eyes and all your senses.

William Faulkner aptly stated: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” “Booker’s Place” illustrates what a daunting task that continues to be.

Opening Wednesday April 25 at the Laemmle Noho, it will be available April 26 on VOD.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at http://www.nomeanerplace.com.

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