Yvette Johnson with her father, Leroy Jones as seen in BOOKER'S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY, a film by Raymond De Felitta. Photographer: Nicki Newburger. Picture courtesy Tribeca Film. All rights reserved.
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Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story (2012)
Opened: 04/25/2012 Limited
|NoHo 7||04/25/2012 - 05/03/2012||9 days|
|Quad Cinema/NYC||04/27/2012 - 05/10/2012||14 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
In 1965, filmmaker Frank De Felitta made a documentary film for NBC News about the changing times in the American South and the tensions of life in the Mississippi Delta during the civil rights struggle. The film was broadcast in May of 1966 and outraged many Southern viewers, in part, because it included an extraordinary scene featuring a local African-American waiter named Booker Wright. Wright, who worked at a local "whites only" restaurant in Greenwood MS, went on record to deliver a stunning, heartfelt and inflammatory monologue exploding the myth about who he was and how he felt about his position serving the local white community. The fallout for Booker Wright was extreme: He lost his job and was beaten and ostracized by those that considered him "one of their own." Forty-five years after Booker's television appearance, Frank De Felitta's son, director Raymond De Felitta, takes a journey into the Mississippi Yazoo Delta with Booker Wright's granddaughter in search of who Booker Wright was, the mystery surrounding his courageous life and untimely murder, and the role Frank De Felitta's NBC News documentary may have played in it.
BOOKER'S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY is also the subject of a full Dateline NBC broadcast hosted by Lester Holt and scheduled to air May 20, 2012, at 7pm.
My new documentary, BOOKER'S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY, is a look back at a heroic act in a small Mississippi town at a time of change and the dangerous repercussions it engendered.
It's the story of an illiterate black waiter named Booker Wright who went on NBC news in 1966 and told the truth about his life in Greenwood, Mississippi. It's the story of his granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, who never knew her grandfather, and her search for the truth about his life and mysterious death.
And it's the story of my father, Frank De Felitta--the man who made the film in 1966 that Booker Wright appeared in--and my desire to find out that film was responsible, directly or indirectly, for Booker Wright's murder.
In a peculiar way, Booker Wright is responsible for the film being made, even though he died in 1973. For without Booker's appearance in my father's film, his granddaughter might not have been moved to investigate his life. And without his granddaughter's desire to uncover the truth about his life, I wouldn't have been tempted into exploring the role my father's film played in his family's life. The somewhat stunning confluence of events that brought this film into being could only have happened in the age of the Internet. Wishing to expose my father's superb documentary work from the 1960's to more people, I posted his 1966 documentary "Mississippi: A Self Portrait" on YouTube. My producing partner, David Zellerford, saw it and was shocked and moved by Booker's stunning speech--so much so that he determined to find out what became of Booker and his family. In so doing, Yvette Johnson--Booker's granddaughter--was finally able to view the piece of film featuring her courageous grandfather (She had heard about the legendary appearance he made on NBC news but the film had been buried in the vaults for years and had remained unseen for four decades until I posted it).
So BOOKER'S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY became a journey for three creative partners-- myself, Yvette and David. All of us had personal reasons for discovering more about Booker's life and why he chose to put himself in the glare of a hostile spotlight. My father's courage in including Booker's speech in his film also had dark ramifications--as we discovered when we began to investigate the circumstances surrounding his murder.
What does a documentarian owe his subjects? Is the truth--spoken plainly and in clear sight of harm--always the right thing to show? Was my father's decision to include Booker's speech-- which he knew would have a severe impact on his subject's life--the correct one? What is a non--fiction filmmakers moral obligation to his subjects and to his audience? All of these questions have been on my mind since I made my first documentary five years ago (TIS AUTUMN: THE SEARCH FOR JACKIE PARIS). I think all significant documentaries raise these issues by the very nature of the form. Certainly when I watch two of my favorites, CAPTURING THE FREEDMANS and GREY GARDENS, I wonder about the subjects reactions to the films about their lives and how they felt about having exposed themselves so nakedly.
How did Booker Wright feel about what he said in "Mississippi: A Self Portrait"? We'll never know for sure. But when I watch Booker Wright in my father's film, I see a man who--whether he knew it in so many words--understood the power of film and the impact he could have by simply telling the whole truth about how it felt to be a black citizen of the southern United States. I see a man who stared at my father's cameras and didn't blink. I see a man who probably knew very well that he was forever changing his life in the those two minutes it took to speak to the news crew. And I see my father, an intrepid documentarian of the turbulent times he was living in, stepping up to Booker Wright's courageous decision and allowing him the platform to say the unsayable--to speak to an audience that he would otherwise never have had.
Nearly fifty years later, the film and Booker Wright live on.
-- Raymond De Felitta