Just saw “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” at the LRFF and thought: This is a film that ought to be distributed in the public schools. It is a lesson in racism, a film that encapsulates black-white relations in the South with the story of just one brave black man, Booker Wright.
"Booker's Place" is also multi-layered, a film about a film and its repercussions: Raymond De Felitta’s documentary about a film his father, Frank De Felitta, made for NBC in 1966. (They don’t make them like they used to: Imagine an hour-long, prime-time documentary on a subject of similar controversy on NBC today.) The older De Felitta, now in his 90s, went to Greenwood, Miss., in 1966 with a film crew to take the temperature of race relations there. He found lots of white people saying they loved their negroes, and one old codger who took the crew through sharecropper cabins to show them how well his negroes lived. Hell, they had propane gas! “We’ve never denied them anything,” the man, Louis, says; the black man says, “Yes, suh!”
But it is Booker Wright who is the heart of this story, a man who was a waiter at Lusco’s, a white’s-only restaurant that is still open in Greenwood, by night while running his own restaurant, Booker’s Place, by day. White people loved to hear Wright recite the menu at Lusco’s — it wasn’t written down and you didn’t know the price of anything until you were at the cash register after dinner — and suggested De Felitta get it on film, which De Felitta did. Wright, dressed in his waiter’s white suit, then surprised De Felitta by continuing to talk, giving a discourse on the way white people treated him at the restaurant. “Some people call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim and some call me nigger,” he said, and then explained how he was nice to all of them. The meaner the customer, he said, the more “you smile, even though you’re crying on the inside.”
The elder De Felitta regrets he did not leave the interview out of “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” even though what Booker said needed to be heard. After its national airing, Booker Wright lost his job, was beaten by police, his restaurant burned. He was murdered seven years later by an African-American named “Blackie,” a man who appeared so self-confident throughout his murder trial that it’s speculated he was encouraged to kill Wright and told, falsely, the trial would be fixed so he would get off. (He’s still in prison; authorities wouldn’t let Raymond De Felitta interview him.)
Wright explains that he’s speaking out for the sake of his children, so they won’t have to smile at people who afford them no respect. Wright’s children don’t share De Felitta’s regrets. They say he was no “accidental activist.”
As luck would have it, while De Felitta’s son Raymond was deciding to take the film out of storage and put it on the Internet, Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, was looking for the film; she’d never seen it. They made contact and Raymond De Felitta’s film was born. The younger De Felitta’s choice to make his film in black and white, as was his father’s, is pure mimesis, and provides continuity between the Mississippi of the 1960s and Mississippi in the 21st century. Best exemplifying the latter: Comments from a group in Greenwood who gathered to watch the NBC film. One man rises to say he considered the black woman who raised him as his second mother — who has not heard that in the South? His effusive remarks prompt a black man to rise and point out that that woman had to ignore her own family so she could take care of the whites she worked for. A woman comments that she loved the film because she got to see on film people she loved — including Booker, but also the town leaders at the time, closeted Klansmen who said integration would be unfair to “illiterate” black kids and that the nigras wanted segregation as much as they did.
The LRFF is third place the film has shown in a theater since its Los Angeles release in April. You can see the NBC film that inspired it on youtube.