Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
To the younger generations of America, it is nearly impossible to imagine the world as depicted in the documentary, Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story. The film's subject, Booker Wright, and other brave Americans like him, are a large reason as to how we have come so far. It is a stark contrast and with a deep irony that this film is being made available on a day where our first black President may find himself re-elected. It is hard to believe how incredibly different our country was only 40 years earlier.
Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story is a gripping, important documentary-within-a-documentary. In 1965, documentary filmmaker Frank De Felitta produced a film for NBC News that showcased the changing times in the American South in relation to the civil rights movement. He focused on a small town called Greenwood, Mississippi, a town deeply entrenched in their segregated beliefs. In this film, he interviewed a black business owner named Booker Wright, who also worked as a server for a whites-only restaurant. Unprovoked, Booker delivered a shockingly raw, heart-breaking monologue about how he felt about serving the local white community. "Some people are nice. Some is not. Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim. Some call me n*****. All that hurts, but you have to smile...The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you are crying on the inside," Booker said. It was a short portion of this 1965 documentary, but it had an enormous impact.
Enraging the Southern whites of Greenwood, Booker lost his job and was hospitalized following a severe beating given to him (allegedly) by a local white police man. His restaurant, "Booker's Place," was firebombed and destroyed. Seven years later, Booker was murdered.
In 2011, the documentary film by Frank De Felitta was put on the internet by his son, Raymond De Felitta, a filmmaker in his own right. Not much was expected from this, so imagine Raymond's shock when he was contacted by Yvette Johnson, granddaughter of Booker Wright, who had heard about her grandfather but didn't realize that this televised segment was still even in existence.
Interviewing his father Frank, and several others alive in Greenwood at the time, Raymond and Yvette try to make sense of the situation. Why would Booker go out on such a limb? What were the details surrounding his murder? Who was to blame?
This new documentary uses a lot of the old one to portray a time that is (hopefully) long forgotten. If Frank De Felitta set out to show a portrait of Southern life, he definitely succeeded. Much of this old footage stands up on its own. It's amazing to think that this place really existed, and really not all that long ago.
Even within the story itself, there are a few twists and turns. With all of the outrage caused by Booker's original statements, amazing when we learn that he was murdered by another black man. How this man came to murder Booker, now that's another story.
Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story is a thoughtful, powerful and tragic snapshot that captures a specific time and place in American history. In an interview in this film, Frank De Felitta shows regret over including the video of Booker in the original documentary, for all the pain it has caused. But oh, what an important decision. Booker - and thousands like him - make up the meat of what the civil rights movement was all about. Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story doubly showcases the power and dignity of the human spirit as well as the impact film itself can have on bringing forth change.
Run Time: 1 hours 30 minutes, Not Rated
Directed by Raymond De Felitta (City Island, 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris)
Available on DVD, November 6th, 2012.
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