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Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story

bookers-place-movie


The story behind Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story begins in the intensely racially segregated South of 1965. An NBC News documentarian named Frank DeFelitta went to Greenwood, Mississippi to gently prod its residents on the subjects of race and racism. He ended up turning a black waiter, Booker Wright, into an “accidental activist,” when he opened up to DeFelitta on the ways the white patrons of Lusco’s treat him.

Now, DeFelitta’s son, Raymond, has tracked down many of Booker’s friends and family members to tell a sad story: After speaking with Frank, Booker was forced to leave the restaurant, and a few years later, he was murdered.

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is quite a touching documentary. Frank, Raymond, and Yvette Johnson (Booker’s granddaughter) all have unanswered questions about this tragic saga. Is Frank morally culpable in Booker’s death? What is the responsibility of a documentarian when he or she has footage that will almost certainly cause its subject some degree of hardship?

And Yvette—the one who initially coins the phrase “accidental activist” to describe the grandfather she wishes she could have known—longs to know what exactly Booker’s intentions were. Did he mean to stir up trouble? Or was he just speaking honestly?

Booker’s Place is filmed in exquisite black and white—I guess an appropriate choice considering the subject matter. It also takes a lot of time placing its viewers in Greenwood. The town’s past is frightening, and the younger DeFelitta manages to get this across to us visually as much as he does with talking heads. That’s not to say his interviews aren’t on point; He speaks to some real characters who have a lot to say, and one can’t help but realize that they can speak freely because of Booker’s courage. But the film probably isn’t going to get much promotion from Greenwood’s board of tourism, as I suspect (and DeFelitta hints) that things haven’t gotten much better since the days of Booker Wright.

The murder itself is almost glossed over. Ditto the material with Frank. The film probably needed to be 30 minutes longer so these issues could be further fleshed out and given their due. When exactly did Frank find out about Booker’s death? What, if any, affect did the news have on his career? How did it shape Raymond’s understanding of documentary filmmaking. Of course, it’s probably not easy to probe one’s 90-year-old father about one of the darkest moments of his life, but a deeper understanding of these issues would have given the film a clear thesis. Instead, it’s a time-and-place movie and a moving eulogy for a deserving civil rights hero. That’s fine, though, when a film does these things as well as Booker’s Place does.

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