“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi…” William Faulkner.
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is a powerful documentary, which caused me such angst and disgust while I was watching it at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The festival ends on April 29, and the documentary is among other films in the Spotlight Documentary series. Booker’s Place is Raymond De Felitta’s project that continues the trailblazing work of his father, Frank.
While making the 1965 documentary, filmmaker Frank De Felitta traveled to Mississippi to shoot a film on the subject of racism in the American South. As he went about observing life in Mississippi and interviewing the locals, Frank was introduced to a Black waiter named Booker Wright. With utter candor, Booker appeared on tape in the documentary and spoke openly and honestly about the realities of living in a racist society.
This brief interview forever changed the lives of Booker and his family, and more than 40 years later, Frank’s son, Raymond (director of City Island), returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of this fateful interview.
As history tells, 40-year-old Booker would normally recite the unwritten seafood and steak menu at Lusco’s restaurant in a melodic tone that entertained the rich, white diners. When Frank learned about Booker, he decided that he wanted to use him in the piece he was writing for NBC News. Booker was taped reciting the menu, dressed in a white jacket and black bow tie, as he always did, but he also went beyond what he normally shared with customers. He stated that white customers were mean to the wait staff if they didn’t smile or behave subservient enough, while “kowtowing” in an effort to receive more tips. “The meaner a man be, the more you smile, although you are hurting on the inside. I have been hurting all my life,” Booker said, while sharing that he wanted better opportunities for his children. And this deviation from his regular speech cost Booker his livelihood and his life.
The NBC documentary called Mississippi, A Self Portrait turned white townspeople against Booker; no matter how whites spoke of great race relations in Mississippi and how much they had done for Blacks, the two races unsurprisingly didn’t quite see things the same way.
According to press materials, the new documentary, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, is an intensely personal film about children seeking to understand their parents, but it is also a heartbreaking portrait of the legacy of intolerance. Presented with a deep sense of compassion and respect, De Felitta’s film is an unforgettable examination of the life of an ordinary man who changed the world around him when he decided to speak out and tell the truth
Raymond uses interviews with friends, family members, townspeople and elected officials to detail Booker’s life as a waiter and also as the owner of his own spot, Booker’s Place, which was popular with Black patrons. Raymond screened the original 1966 documentary and led discussion groups afterward. Wright’s daughters and granddaughter also weighed in on how they felt about the subject matter. The impact of Booker’s speech was traumatic, as Booker lost his job and his small bar.
I refer to Booker Wright as Booker, with great respect for Wright and what he endured at the hands of local whites and, eventually, his shooting death in 1973 for which a Black man, Lewis “Blackie” Cork, is currently serving a life sentence. (It is alleged that Cork, who was often drunk, was paid liquor to kill Booker).
Raymond also wanted to explain his father’s original intent in taping Booker. Frank was concerned about leaving in the controversial part of the speech, but he says Booker wanted it to remain. And this speech will always be a part of Wright’s legacy. “My father was a flyer in WWII; he saw the atrocities of the Holocaust and camps and was struck by the treatment of Blacks in the South,” Raymond De Felitta said.
Even though she lost her grandfather, Yvette Johnson was proud that he spoke out against racism and segregation in Mississippi. “He knew what he was doing…the gravity of what he was doing, and he was bold and brave and it was no accident.”
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is a great documentary that should leave any viewer with some feelings of uneasiness. It shows life at a time in Mississippi where Blacks were simply trying to survive but with much resistance from “Jim Crow” whites. The film should be released nationwide soon, but for more information, visit Tribecafilm.com.