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Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story (Tribeca Film, NR)

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booker sqAn interview with Booker Wright becomes a window into the life not only of one man, but of a whole culture that, one hopes, lies mostly in America’s past.

 

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Frank de Felitta made documentary films for television. One of those films, “Emergency Ward,” was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1963. However, he’s hardly a household name today; as his son Raymond De Felitta notes, most of his father’s work was shown once or a few times on television, then never seen in public again.

That may well change with the release of Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, a documentary by Raymond de Felitta that centers on an earlier television documentary his father made about life in Mississippi in the mid-1960s. The original documentary, Mississippi: A Self Portrait, was broadcast on NBC in 1966, and is full of astonishing things: Barely one minute in, a white man, showing his full face on camera, says that the Klan saved the South and would have to save it again. He goes on, completely without irony, to add that he believed in calling a spade a spade. Witnessing such testimony makes me feel like an anthropologist who has just discovered a new, primitive culture where people still believe the earth is flat and that disease is caused by witchcraft, and yet that man, and the others who appear in this documentary, lived in the United States less than 60 years ago.

The focus of Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is one remarkable segment of the 1966 documentary, during which Booker Wright, a black waiter at an whites-only restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi, recites the menu choices as like a more animated version of Bubba Blue telling Forrest Gump the many ways shrimp could be prepared. Clad in a white jacket and bow tie and exuding warmth, he could be appearing in a commercial for the restaurant or a public relations spot for the town. Then, rather astonishingly, he shifts gears and begins speaking of the daily humiliations he has to face as a black man in the South (smiling on the outside, crying on the inside, as he puts it), and how he endures it so his children will have a better life.

That was not a message Greenwood was prepared to hear. The town was a center of activity for the White Citizens’ Council, and, about a decade earlier, Emmett Till had been murdered only a few miles away. There were immediate consequences for Mr. Wright: He lost his job, his own restaurant (serving Greenwood’s black community) was vandalized, and he was beaten (by a policeman) so badly he had to go into the hospital. Eight years later, he was shot and killed in his restaurant by a black patron, in an act so lacking in conventional motivation that some believe there was a conspiracy behind it.

The clip of Mr. Wright is played repeatedly during Booker’s Place, supplemented with interviews by his relatives and neighbors and other persons familiar with the time and place, as well as a well-chosen selection of archival materials. Ultimately, that brief clip becomes a window into the life not only of one man, but of a whole culture that, one hopes, lies mostly in America’s past.

Raymond de Felitta shot Booker’s Place in black and white, which has an oddly distancing effect and also blurs the boundary between the 1966 documentary footage, other archival materials from that time, and the contemporary interviews. The film includes many abstract visual elements, as well, creating beautiful collages matched with a well-chosen soundtrack that keep Booker’s Place from being merely a straightforward recital of facts. | Sarah Boslaugh

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is available On Demand through amazon.com, iTunes, and VuDu, and will be released on video on November 6, 2012; it’s also having a limited theatrical release. You can watch the entire 1966 documentary Mississippi: A Self Portrait online. Both films are well worth your while.

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