Documentarian and subject, past and present blur together like bleeding watercolors in Raymond De Felitta’s gripping memoir Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. De Felitta examines the life and legacy of Booker Wright, a black business owner who bared his soul during a revelatory interview for a short 1966 NBC doc titled “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” about segregation in the man’s small town of Greenwood, Mississippi. But Booker’s Place also concerns the threads that link Booker with people on both sides of the camera.
The first example of Booker’s influence concerns Raymond De Felitta’s father, Frank, a WWII aviator turned filmmaker who directed the aforementioned television piece after traveling to Greenwood to record the white response to racism in one of the most volatile hotbeds of KKK activity. It was in this place deeply embedded in segregationist policy that he found Booker, an energetic and uncompromising entrepreneur whose honesty on camera about racial inequality turned out to be a shocking wake-up call for Greenwood’s citizenry, black and white alike. After “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” aired on national television, Booker’s confession “brought the Civil Rights Movement home,” as one interviewee remembers; it spotlighted the reality of African-American experience in a place known for wanting to repress it.
If the aged Frank De Felitta represents the filmmaker experience in Booker’s Place, Booker’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, credited as a co-producer here, represents that of the subject’s. Determined to unveil more information about Booker’s role as an activist, and later his tragic death at the hands of another black man, a murder some feel was orchestrated by the corrupt Greenwood police force, Johnson becomes an active participant in her own history. In a collaborative effort born out of the need to reengage the past and address those issues still plaguing the present, Raymond and Yvette conduct interviews with Booker’s friends and family, expanding the man’s story past the simple newspaper headlines and hearsay.
This is a visually intoxicating documentary, most notably for how the filmmakers use cinematography to heighten our emotional responses. Crisp black-and-white HD imagery of Greenwood circa 2011, captured in long camera takes from moving vehicles and poetic establishing shots, melds with the more immediate, grainy archival footage of lynchings, police beatings, and Klan rallies. Those old enough to remember such horrific events often stare into the camera without saying a word, as if taken for a moment by the remembrance of a past that still haunts them.
Booker’s Place not only establishes a need to reexamine the historical parameters of American race relations, it brings the broad social issues back to a personal level for Greenwood’s populace. After a public screening of the 1966 documentary, one of the town’s older white citizens fondly remembers spending time with his surrogate “black mother” in the fields. Seconds later, an elderly black man takes offense to his neighbor’s romanticizing of the past, revealing how raw and relevant the pain of social inequality still remains to this day. Throughout Booker’s Place, personal experience and historical remembrance crash together in such surprising, sometimes shocking, ways.
Most striking are Booker’s words themselves. The man is captured in static medium shot by Frank De Felitta’s camera inside Booker’s restaurant, which gives the film its title. In speaking honestly about the contradictions he experiences on a daily basis serving whites as a waiter at one of the town’s most prestigious eateries, Booker peels back the façade of progress facilitated by local white organizations claiming change like the Citizen’s Council, showing a daring determination to subvert the trickle-down effects of segregation. “Some people call me Booker, some call me Jim, some call me Nigger. All that hurts, but you have to smile.” By the end of Booker’s Place, Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson help uncover not only the context to their subject’s striking bit of micro-activism, but how that kernel of defiance inspired a town to address its own contradictory history, and foster an ongoing sense of reconciliation in the process.