December 16, 2012 -- The generations have rolled by. The small building in Greenwood Mississippi that was once operated by Booker Wright has fallen into disrepair. The sign that once read “Booker's Place” is gone, but memories of the late Booker Wright, civil rights pioneer, came flooding back when video from a long-forgotten TV news broadcast was put on the internet. People remember Booker Wright, a modest man who once stood before the nation and spoke from his heart for the oppressed people of America.
It all started with a short documentary, “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” produced by Frank De Felitta in 1965. This year, Frank's son, Raymond De Felitta, directs a follow up to that film, tracking down relatives and others who knew Booker Wright. The film tells a story of another America which seems most primitive, foreign and far away now, but it was really not all that long ago in old segregated, Jim Crow Mississippi.
Shot in stark black and white, like its subject, the modern footage of the film blends in with the images from 1965. Inspired by a Hodding Carter article in the New York Times on racial injustice, Frank De Felitta went to Mississippi 47 years ago, determined to get interviews with whites and blacks, talking about race relations in the south.
Those interviews from that time seem most surreal now. Seemingly reasonable whites in the south talking about how much they love black people, how they were raised by black people. At the same, a black man could be murdered for whistling at a white woman, or trying to vote. Blacks would not even look white people in the eye when they walked down the street. The practice of sharecropping was explained by an old black man as being just another word for slavery.
Speeches by one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and news clips of comments by rabid racists set the tone for this volatile era in American history. It was a time and a place where it would be impossible to conceive of America electing a black president. Into this dangerous climate Frank De Felitta ventured, armed with phone numbers of undercover FBI agents, just in case he got into trouble. He had trouble getting interviews. He and the other producers wanted to avoid interviewing obvious red necks. He looked for people in country clubs. Well-dressed, well-educated people from the south were his targets.
Then he heard of Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s Restaurant. There was no menu, or prices listed at Lusco's, but Booker could sing the name of every dish served there. It was quite an act, so Frank arranged to film Booker. He got more than he bargained for. After singing the menu, Booker spoke frankly about his true feelings of being insulted, degraded and downtrodden all his life. He said he was crying on the inside while smiling to his customers. His said his greatest hope was that his children would not have to go through that same humiliation and despair. All this, despite the fact that Booker Wright was relatively well off financially for a black person in Mississippi in those days and he had a better paying job than most blacks did. He even owned his own business, called “Booker's Place.”
Frank was astonished and moved by Booker's heart-rending speech. He asked Booker if he really wanted to be seen saying all that on television in front of the whole nation. That could be dangerous for him, personally. Booker was adamant, “It is time,” he said to make a stand and he wanted to say his piece. It was as Frank feared. When “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” aired on NBC, Booker's speech made a lot of news. Booker was badly beaten by a cop soon after that and hospitalized. His restaurant was firebombed. Booker lost his job at Lusco's. Whites refused to be served by Booker.
Booker got a new job as a bus driver busing kids to Head Start classes. Later, Booker was murdered at his place by one of his customers. Booker's friends and family think Booker's murder was arranged in advance because Booker's speech had hurt the white establishment. Booker's children and grandchildren had not seen Booker's speech. His granddaughter had never realized that Booker was not tricked into the speech, that he was, in fact, an activist.
The film interweaves footage from 1965 with modern interviews of people who knew Booker and the times he lived in. Those interviewed include lawyers, law enforcement people, journalists, civil rights activists and others familiar with that time and place. There is nothing else in the film however, which matches the power and poignancy of Booker's 1965 speech, a simple statement by a man who wanted to be treated with respect. It simply, elegantly and effectively laid bare the whole lie of a way of life in the south now gone with the wind, thankfully. This film rates a B.
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