Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story
"Though its central narrative is slight, the film delivers it well and is refreshingly self-aware."

In 1966, NBC documentary maker Frank De Felitta set out to film a portrait of Mississippi. It was a year and a half after Martin Luther King had received the Nobel Peace Prize and just a year after the Voting Rights Act sought to outlaw discrimination that kept black Americans out of the polling booth, but attitudes in Mississippi hadn't changed much since the days of slavery. Plantation owners still enforced terrible working conditions on black labourers constrained by inescapable debt, bars and restaurants used assorted tricks to work around desegregation laws, and the justice system paid little heed when black people were the victims of crime. Yet all Felitta could find at first were demure, ostensibly grateful black workers and white business owners keen to explain how much they loved and wanted to help these unfortunate people. Until he found Booker Wright.

Most of the big changes in history start with small things. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man because she was tired. Eleven years later, Booker Wright was tired too. He was tired of putting up with constant belittling, abusive treatment from the white people who came into the restaurant where he worked. He coped by smiling, as every waiter learns to do, and by treating them with impeccable politeness no matter what they said, but he was tired of lying. Explaining to Felitta simply "It's time," he told it like it was, and his words shocked America.

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2010. Wright has been dead for 37 years, shot by a customer in the bar he ran for himself. Felitta is 90, a frail man still wondering if using that footage was right. His son, Raymond, also a documentary maker, wants to know the rest of Wright's story. Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, herself a writer, is ready to help him discover it.

Given how long this story has been forgotten, it's impressive that there's so much archive material available with which to reconstruct the tale. Felitta Snr's material is useful, of course, but there's also material from newspapers and even advertisements. There's not enough, sadly, for 85 minutes, and the film feels as if it has been stretched to fit the approved feature time slot, but that's not to deny that it's powerful stuff. The repetition of Wright's words in different contexts help to emphasise the weight of suffering that led them to be uttered, and thus to traverse the cultural gap between those shocked original audiences and viewers today. By contrast, the white men from the period attempting to justify their attitudes to race might once have seemed neutral to many viewers but are deeply disturbing today.

Though its central narrative is slight, the film delivers it well and is refreshingly self-aware. Yes, it's a white man telling a black man's story in a look-how-far-they've-come style (it would have been nice to see a brief account of race issues in Mississippi today, for context) but this is nicely balanced when Johnson recounts the story of Felitta Snr, who only occasionally speaks for himself. Questions around his journalistic ethics are addressed starkly but briefly. This is Wright's story, and there's an impressive amount of personal testimony to back it up. Contributions from different generations, each remembering those who went before, remind us that, in human terms, the days of segregation are not very far in the past, their legacy still very much present today. This is a portion of an ongoing story which it would be interesting to see revisited again in 50 years.

With the Faulkner quote “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi,” Booker's Place neatly emphasises its wider importance. Beautifully shot and clearly made with love, it is at once a small human story and a valuable piece of history.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2012
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In 1966, Booker Wright shocked America by speaking out about his experiences of racism. This documentary explores what happened next.
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Festivals:

Tribeca 2012

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