Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story (2012)

Better than average

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 12, 2012 on tonymacklin.net.

It drives me nuts when an interviewer doesn't follow up.

If Charlie Rose on tv was interviewing someone who said, "I have the secret of life," Charlie would look at his notes and say, "I see you were born in the Midwest."

Then he'd proceed to tell the interviewee all about his birthplace. Screw a follow-up question. Who cares about "the secret of life"? It's not in his notes.

I'm sure Charlie's a hit at cocktail parties. He's a one-question pony.

Rose, like the vain blabbermouth Chris Matthews, is an example of an interviewer whose focus is on his own questions. Screw the answers from other people. They only set up his questions.

I thought of interviewers who don't follow up when I saw the documentary Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, directed by Raymond De Felitta.

Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story is an intriguing, personal look at De Felitta's father Frank's NBC news feature Mississippi: A Self Portrait aired in 1966, and its provocative aftermath.

In 1965 Frank De Felitta went to Mississippi to shoot a segment on the white citizens' points of view in Mississippi, but he got little access. He then returned with impressive NBC equipment and a truck, and the people talked to him.

He was introduced to Booker Wright, a Negro waiter at Lusco's - a "whites only" restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi. Booker had a harmonious ability to recite the menu (there was no written menu).

But the biggest surprise and stroke of fortune was that when Booker finished his spiel, he continued to talk on camera about his real attitude of pain behind his steady smile, which he had to fake.

"The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you're cryin' on the inside," Booker said.

The scene had reverberations which reached a national audience and shocked and angered Mississippians.

Eventually the footage was lost, but Frank De Felitta kept a copy. When Booker's granddaughter Yvette Johnson tried to find out more about her grandfather and his role in race relations, she and Raymond De Felitta made contact. They had a serendipitous relationship. She is listed as a co-producer on Raymond's documentary.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Booker's Place is the contrast between many whites with their well-meaning, self-satisfied pronouncements that they were generous, and the actual feelings of the blacks. The NBC show shook the certainty.

Booker left Lusco's after the show's airing, but he had his own eatery - Booker's Place - for blacks. He was influential in education's Head Start.

Eventually he was murdered and left an enigmatic legacy. Yvette first thought he was an "accidental activist," but she came to believe his activism was no accident.

Raymond De Felitta wrote and directed the fictional City Island, with Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies. It was one of the better, more human movies of 2009, although the ending tied things up a bit coyly.

Clarity is a forte for a documentary. De Felitta has captured a time and place, both past and present, but one wishes he had pushed a bit more for truth.

He perhaps repeats Booker's crucial speech too often. Repetition does not enhance the point.

His father Frank has been haunted by his achievement in 1966, but Raymond never quite gets his father to resolve why it's bothered him so much for so long. One wishes Raymond had gotten further into that.

Also, what did Frank think when Booker said he didn't want him to visit him in the hospital? Why?

In a note, it says on the screen that an interview with Booker's murderer who is in prison was denied. That's a major omission - a key character left out. One wants to hear what he says, and how he says it.

Yvette says that when she read the transcripts of the trial, "the more questions I had." De Felitta leaves the motive of the murderer open to suggestion and innuendo. It might not be solved, but it could be clarified.

It's almost a lawyer's cheap trick to cast doubt.

One wishes in Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, Raymond De Felitta had cast a little more resolution. Questions can be good; follow-ups are better.

What's behind a documentarian's smile?


You might be interested in reading my most recent reviews, all of my reviews from this year, or all of my reviews from last year.

For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).


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