On the Wright Track
By Amy Taubin [From ArtForum.com]
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.