In 1966, Frank De Felitta made an NBC News documentary about race relations in Greenwood, Miss., a town famous for its lynchings. Fifty-five years later, his son Raymond (“Two Family House,” “City Island”) follows in his footsteps with “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” filming his update in matching black-and-white. The resulting dialogue between father and son, past and present, focuses on the figure of Booker Wright, an illiterate black waiter whose unforgettable, candid, two-minute summation of his Greenwood existence had far-reaching repercussions for everyone concerned. This fascinating, must-see docu, skedded to open later this month in limited release and VOD, should travel far.
Whether projected on a screen for the Greenwood public or pored over by friends and relatives who add colorful if horrifying detail, the 1966 footage, and particularly Wright’s extraordinary speech, form the nucleus of the docu; helmer Raymond revisits the segment in partial snatches or silent slo-mo, to hypnotic effect.
At first, in the context of 2012, little seems shocking in what Wright says. He begins by giving Frank what he asks for: the spiel he delivers nightly for his job at whites-only restaurant Lusco’s, where he melodiously intones the menu (the waiters’ singsong recitations are a specialty of the eatery). But Wright then continues to describe how his customers treat him (“Some is nice, some is not, some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim and some call me nigger”), how that makes him feel (“I have to smile, the meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you’re crying inside”) and why he endures it (“so that my children can get an education and not suffer what I suffered”). In the Klan-dominated context of 1966 Greenwood, which later sections from Frank’s docu illuminate more fully, Wright’s words register disturbingly, provocatively revealing the dignified determination lying beneath his servile mask.
Blowback from Wright’s appearance was immediate. White patrons refused to deal with him and he lost his job; his own restaurant, a mecca for blacks passing through Greenwood, was trashed and burned; and Wright himself was pistol-whipped by a local cop (no charges filed). The camera traverses deserted nighttime country roads as the tale unfolds through eyewitness recollections. Wright’s murder several years later raised more questions than it answered.
Raymond travels to Greenwood with Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson (the film’s co-producer), who never met the man but had been vainly searching for the NBC documentary. Together they screen the now-legendary episode for the townspeople, several of whom are featured in it. Yvette had always considered Wright an “accidental activist,” but soon realizes he was totally conscious of the political consequences of his speech. There was nothing accidental in his actions.
The constant intercutting between old and new black-and-white footage focuses on the changes 50 years have wrought — and those changes’ limitations. Fear of the Klan and the police (often interchangeable then) seem absent today, and segregation feels less institutionalized than it did in Frank’s docu, which expounded on Greenwood’s explosive reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, but “Booker’s Place” makes clear that there’s still a long way to go to reach equality.