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Booker's Place
By Amy Taubin [From]
Raymond De Felitta, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, 2012, black-and-white film in HD, 91 minutes. Production still. Vera Douglas, Katherine Jones, and Yvette Johnson. Photo: Danielle Anderson.
SOME STORIES need to be told and told again. Raymond De Felitta’s Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story(2012) is the sequel to his father Frank De Felitta’s NBC News documentary Mississippi: A Self Portrait(1966). Both films explore racism and a still unresolved struggle for desegregation in Greenwood, Mississippi, the town that was the home of Byron De La Beckwith, finally convicted in 1994 of assassinating Medgar Evers in 1963. At the time of the NBC film, De La Beckwith belonged to the statewide White Citizens’ Council, headquartered in Greenwood and virtually synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. The elder De Felitta, aware that he was putting his life in danger by filming in Greenwood, was given the telephone numbers of undercover FBI agents living in the area, and on one occasion had to call for protection. It’s a small measure of how far we have come (still not nearly far enough) that no such protection was necessary for the son when he visited Greenwood a year or two ago to show the 1966 film to current residents and to interview them, in particular, about Booker Wright, whose two-minute monologue—delivered straight to the NBC cameras in the original film—is still riveting today. Wright seized the moment to tell an entire nation the truth about racism and black servitude, speaking through lips set wide in a minstrel smile. It was an act of extraordinary courage and transformation. As the camera rolled, Wright metamorphosed from a man who played the clown for those who treated him like dirt into a confrontational civil rights activist, so that, he explained, “my children can get an education and not suffer what I suffered.” The younger De Felitta is an undervalued American independent film treasure. His fiction movies, among them Two Family House (2000) and City Island (2009), are that rare thing—popular culture entertainments that are uplifting but unsentimental, and deeply humanist in the manner of Jean Renoir. De Felitta’s characters discover that they cannot live by the rules of their working-class conservative communities. In liberating their sense of justice and creativity, they experience, however tenuously, real joy. Since those characters are not black and not living in Mississippi in the 1960s, they do not pay with their lives, as did Booker Wright, for doing the right thing. After Mississippi: A Self Portrait aired, Wright was fired from the job he had held since he was fourteen as a waiter in a white restaurant; his own restaurant, Booker’s Place, was trashed; he was beaten nearly to death by the cops. In 1973, he was murdered. Many people, the elder De Felitta among them, believed that his appearance in the NBC documentary factored in his death. A few years ago, while trying to archive his father’s films, De Felitta found Mississippi: A Self Portrait and put it on YouTube. Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson saw it and contacted De Felitta. She had heard about the film but never seen it. In watching Booker’s monologue, she realized that he was not an “accidental activist” as she had believed but rather a courageous man who took charge of his life by performing an existential act, knowing fully its possible consequences. De Felitta and Johnson traveled together to Greenwood to show the original film and to put together the interviews and background material that would make up Booker’s Place. The backstory I’ve related here figures in the actual film, a “two-family house” that fluidly weaves two intergenerational narratives, that of Booker, his mother, his children, and his granddaughter and that of the De Felittas. The father is now in his nineties, and his guilt about Booker was perhaps alleviated by seeing Booker’s monologue through the eyes of his granddaughter, who understood that the film gave Booker the opportunity to “become a man.” To a certain extent, the new film gives us a chance to compare Greenwood then and now. Certainly there is improvement. Booker’s Place, however, remains unoccupied.  

Booker's Place, Interviews
By Wilson Morales [From] Playing at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival is an incredible documentary called ‘Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,’ which is about an African-American waiter named Booker Wright, who gave an incredibly honest interview about racism in the south in 1965. In 1965, documentary filmmaker Frank DeFelitta 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 an African-American waiter named Booker Wright. With utter candor and a brazen lack of concern for his own well-being, 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 DeFelitta, who directed the Andy Garcia film ‘City Island,’ returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of this fateful interview. “Booker’s Place” is playing as part of the Tribeca Film Festival April 22, 25, 26, 28, and opens at the Quad Cinema April 27. caught up with director Raymond DeFelitta and his co-producer and Booker Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson as they spoke the journey they went on to discover more about Booker. When did you decide that you wanted to make a film about this footage your father shot? Raymond De Felitta: It all happened quite accidentally. I have a blog where I put up old films and old music and I’ve always been interested in these documentaries that my father made for NBC in the 1960’s and they are not available. You can’t see them. They are these great one hour time capsules of history of America in the 1960s. So I just started putting them on Youtube and posting them on my blog and figured that if anyone tells me to take them down, that’s fine. Meanwhile, maybe people will find them. There’s a civil rights documentary called ‘Mississippi: A Self Portrait,’ which I especially liked and I put it up and it snowballed. Yvette Johnson found footage of her grandfather, Booker Wright, who’s in the film. He’s amazing part of my father’s movie. He’s a black leader at a “white’s only” restaurant who gives a speech that is shocking and incendiary and quite amazing. It’s the centerpiece of my father’s film. Once Yvette found it, we started talking about going on this journey together and tried to find more about Booker Wright. Yvette, how long it was it before someone told you that there was this story about your grandfather and how long did it take to contact Raymond? Yvette Johnson: I found out about my grandfather being on a news program probably about five years ago and I too started a blog about my efforts to find him and the research I was doing. In my blog, I talked about how I was searching for this footage and Raymond’s producing partner gave me a call. I then met with Raymond and we had a long breakfast and the rest is history. As the two of you went on this journey, what were some the challenges that you came across trying to get people to talk about that time period? Raymond De Felitta: I did not know the southern United States at all. The closest I’d ever got to was Florida and Florida is typical and atypical of the south. Just going to Mississippi and going to the delta scene, the culture, and meeting the people was eye-opening and it was wonderful and that was fascinating. In a sense, I was looking at it through my father’s eyes. He was there making his film in 1965 and here we are, close to 50 years later, doing it again. I was also seeing it through very fresh eyes of my own. The south is a fascinating place and it was an incredible way to spend a lot of last year. With so much footage you have, what did you leave out in order to put together a film? Raymond De Felitta: It’s funny, because you go through a process making a documentary a little like you do when you’re sitting at home writing something and concentrating in your room. It’s only that you are doing it with a documentary with a film that you shot. You shoot a lot but you have a sense of what it is that you are looking for and later you tend to find that it’s maybe more about this. You starting looking at the footage again and you have to be ruthless about deciding on the narrative and the message that you want to convey and anything that doesn’t support that has to come out. Yvette could speak to this as well because she was with me every step of the way. There were so many interesting people that we spoke to and there’s not a hint of them in the film. Why is Mississippi the state with the most ties to racial tension? Raymond De Felitta: Actually, Florida has recently taken Mississippi’s place. I don’t know. People from Mississippi also struggle with that question. They have a certain humor about their state. I just found out that prohibition existed in Mississippi until the 1970s. It was illegal to sell liquor well until the 1970s if you could believe that. I asked a Greenwood resident why did that take so long and he said, “We’re Mississippi and we’re last in everything.” That’s their attitude, which is wonderful. They know they are a strange bunch. Yvette Johnson, what has been the reception you’ve received from folks as you did research about your grandfather? Yvette Johnson: I have to say that my experience of being in Greenwood and meeting people, blacks who grew up and knew Booker’s Place and who knew my grandfather was emotional. Also, with whites, who as children, their families knew about the restaurant. That was the most popular restaurant in Greenwood during those days. I was really embraced. I think what was beautiful was that so many who lived in Greenwood during the time that my grandfather was there had a story about him. They had their own personal Booker Wright experience. He’s been dead for almost 40 years. I think for them and for me, it was a chance for me to see him through their eyes and it was a chance for them to have one more moment with him when they were with me. It was actually beautiful. It was not at all what I was expecting. As a filmmaker who just made a personal discovery, where do you go from here? Raymond De Felitta: I have made two documentaries and four narratives and I never set out to think of myself as a personal filmmaker, but now as I look back and I’ve been doing for 20 years, and they are all personal films. Whether they are as historically based as this and I’ve made a couple of comedies, but they are all personal films. One way or another, I’m interested in telling a story that shows a central character, a man usually, who’s confronted with a moment in their life where everything changes. To me, it’s the human story. It’s the universal story and Booker has that moment in this movie. Yvette, how about you? Yvette Johnson: Well, I’m doing a couple of things. My goal for this story is people don’t realize how little they know about how life was blacks back in that era, and with this knowledge (through the film), it helps them with the way they view racism today. I’m working on a book to help with that perspective and I have a blog where I’m hoping where people can come and learn about race in America that’s not mentioned in the mainstream. This film is not really about civil rights or about the south, but about those things through the lens of one man.  

Audio, Booker's Place, Interviews
“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” [From] In 1965, Frank De Felitta made a documentary about the civil rights struggle in the Mississippi Delta. A black waiter named Booker Wright, who worked at a “whites only” restaurant, spoke openly about his thoughts on segregation in the film, and as a result, he lost his job and was beaten and ostracized. Booker Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson joins Frank De Felitta’s son Raymond De Felitta to discuss about the new documentary directed by Raymond De Felitta, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” about who Booker Wright was and how the 1965 film changed his life.  

Booker's Place
By Felicia R. Lee [From The New York Times]

Booker Wright, a black waiter in a whites-only restaurant in Greenwood, Miss., neither protested nor preached as the civil rights movement of the 1960s roiled the Delta. But the film “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” scheduled to premiere on Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival, portrays him as one of the small heroes of that grand movement.

His feat: He dropped his mask of servility in a 1966 television documentary about the state, admitting that he was “crying on the inside” as he kowtowed to customers who sometimes denied him tips and uttered racial slurs. “The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” he explains.

The new documentary uses interviews with friends, family, ordinary residents and elected officials to talk about what might be called Mr. Wright’s double life — he also ran his own thriving restaurant, Booker’s Place, catering to black patrons — and about the town now and then, when it was a site of civil-rights-era horrors.

Beyond tribute or sociological excavation, however, “Booker’s Place” also represents a personal reckoning: The film’s director, Raymond De Felitta (“City Island”; “ ’Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris”), is the son of Frank De Felitta, the producer and director of that mostly forgotten 1966 documentary, “Mississippi: A Self Portrait.” Yvette Johnson, a co-producer, is one of Mr. Wright’s four grandchildren and had searched for years for more information about him.

Booker WrightCreditCourtesy Booker Wright Family

It just so happened that Mr. De Felitta had posted a copy of the documentary by his father, now 90, online in 2011. (It’s no longer available.) That prompted the younger Mr. De Felitta’s producing partner, David Zellerford, to suggest a new Mississippi film project, and his research led him to Ms. Johnson.

Ms. Johnson, a 37-year-old writer who lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons, had started a blog about her grandfather ( and is writing a book about him. “I felt grateful they’d bring me along to protect my grandfather’s story,” she said by phone, discussing her first foray into film.

She and Mr. De Felitta conducted interviews for the new film, which has commercial releases in Los Angeles on Wednesday and in New York on Friday.

She recalled vaguely knowing that her grandfather, born in 1926, had once spoken to a television crew back in the ’60s, which led her to see him as a kind of “accidental activist.”

Booker Wright, left, in his restaurant a few years after the 1966 film by Frank De Felitta.CreditCourtesy Booker Wright Family

By all appearances, Mr. Wright relished his turn before the camera. He begins with a singsong recitation of the seafood and steak menu at Lusco’s Restaurant. A round-faced man with a slight mustache, outfitted in a white jacket and black bow tie, he goes on to explain that he endured for his three children.

“I just don’t want my children to go through what I go through,” he says, adding that he longed for them to be able to get jobs for which they are qualified. He then looks at the camera and states, “But remember, you have to keep that smile.”

Hodding Carter III, the journalist and former member of the Carter administration, grew up and worked in Greenville, Miss., and said his first reaction upon seeing the documentary was that Mr. Wright was a dead man.

“In one person, in one interview, in one place, you have personified what it was black Mississippi was saying to white Mississippi after all these years,” he says in “Booker’s Place.”

Frank De Felitta in 1966. CreditCourtesy Frank De Felitta

The words uttered by Mr. Wright in that NBC broadcast led to a beating by a local police officer. He lost his waiter’s job at Lusco’s, which he had held since he was 14. His own restaurant was vandalized.

A beloved and respected figure in a town that was a major center for the segregationist Citizens’ Council, he reopened Booker’s Place and bought a school bus to transport children in the Head Start program. He was shot to death by a black customer in his restaurant in 1973, which raised some conspiracy theories.

“Booker’s Place” “started out as history of Greenwood now and then, but it became focused on Booker,” Mr. De Felitta, 47, said in a telephone interview. “You can cast it as symbolic of larger concerns about race, which is still an important subject and which people are still interested in.”

The new film allowed Mr. De Felitta to preserve the work of his father, who made many documentaries but became famous for “Audrey Rose,” a 1975 horror novel. He said his father, who appears in “Booker’s Place,” felt guilty for exposing Mr. Wright to the public, especially in that area.

Johnson, right, with her mother, Katherine Jones, left, and aunt Vera Douglas.CreditDanielle Andersen

Emmett Till was lynched just a few miles away in 1955. The civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in Mississippi in 1964, their bodies buried in a mound in Neshoba County, roughly an hour by car from Greenwood .

But Ms. Johnson said two important things came out of the “Booker’s Place” project. She met Frank De Felitta and assured him that he had done the right thing in giving her grandfather a platform. And after finally seeing the 1966 film and interviewing people in Greenwood, she decided that her grandfather was bold and deliberate in speaking up.

It turned out that Mr. Wright’s wish for his children to lead different lives came true. Katherine Jones, Ms. Johnson’s mother, became a director in telecommunications at the University of California, San Diego. (Ms. Johnson’s father, Leroy Jones, grew up near Greenwood and played defensive end for the San Diego Chargers.)

Her mother’s older sister, Vera Douglas, became a public school teacher in Greenville, Miss. Gloria Liggans, a stepdaughter of Mr. Wright from a common-law marriage, married, settled in Port Gibson, Miss., and is now a grandmother.

Surprisingly, Ms. Johnson, who recalls feeling somewhat adrift growing up in mostly white communities in San Diego, now sees Greenwood, where she has many relatives, as more of a home than San Diego or Phoenix.

“It’s beautiful; the people are kind and warm,” she said. “I’ve walked away with a sense of heritage that includes a hero in my lineage.”