Thursday, May 3, 2012

You Must Visit "Booker's Place"

Playing in Theaters

You Must Visit "Booker's Place"

(from 5/2/12)

In 1965, esteemed television pioneer Frank De Felitta made a documentary for NBC News about life in Greenwood, Mississippi, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal across the land. He was told not to stir up contgroversy by interviewing any black citizens but he couldn't resist putting on camera a riveting individual named Mack Booker Wright. Booker had grown up working in the cotton fields but for the last twenty-five years had been a popular, decently paid waiter at the exclusive whites-only restaurant, Lusco's--and also was the proprietor of his own restaurant across the tracks in the black section of town, Booker's Place. Booker was well-liked by those who ran and frequented Lusco's because he had good manners, smiled even when insulted, and seemed to be content spending days being polite to whites. But in front of De Felitta's camera, Booker delivered a blunt, inflammatory monologue about the indignities he suffered on a daily basis while being subservient to the whites in town. He expressed that he didn't want his three daughters to go through what he did. De Felitta offered to not include his heartfelt speech because he feared there would be reprisals in town against Booker if it was seen nationally, but Booker insisted that it remain. De Felitta would long feel guilt for including Booker because he immediately lost his job at Lusco's and was ostracized by the white community, was brutally beaten by a white policeman, would be threatened and suffer humiliations in his remaining years, and was murdered in 1973 by a black man with ties to a white officer. Thirty-five years later Frank's filmmaker son Raymond De Felitta (Two-Family House, City Island) and Booker's granddaughter Yvette Johnson, a teacher in Arizona, went to Greenwood to learn more about Booker's story. They put together new footage, including interviews of Greenwood citizens, black and white, with footage from the 1966 documentary, and the result is the fascinating Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story. I was able to speak to De Felitta and Johnson (who was an interview subject as well as serving as a coproducer) when they were screening their movie at the Tribeca Film Festival. Although I'm posting this too late for the festival, the film has opened at the Quad Cinema in New York City (as well as Los Angeles) and will be the subject of a full Dateline hosted by Lester Holt on NBC on May 20, 2012.
Danny Peary: Are many people who see Booker's Place surprised that what takes place in your father's NBC documentary about Mississippi, including Booker's monologue was not in 1955 but in 1965, after the Civil Rights Act?
Raymond De Felitta: In general, what people thought ended ten years earlier was still going on in the seventies. People assume that after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, it was done. There is a huge, huge misconception about that. Booker was killed in 1973. The attitudes, the mindset, were still there deep into the next generation and some will say still exist.
DP: If your father returned to Mississippi with you, would he have said it's just like he remembered it?
RDF: I don't think he would. What he conveys, particularly in our story about how he could contact an undercover FBI agent if he was in physical danger, is that they were a crew from the north doing something very risky. They had to protect themselves because something could have happened to them. We didn't face anything remotely like that. That alone tells us that 55 years has made a major impact in certain ways.
DP: So nobody told you that you were stirring up bad memories that have nothing to do with what life is like in Greenwood, Mississippi today?
RDF: We didn't get that response but we were talking to a very specific type of white and black southerner. Middle-aged and older and educated. Nobody was reticent but we weren't talking to former Klan members and we didn't get to talk to the policeman who beat up Booker after my father's documentary ran. There are people there who you might provoke that kind of reaction from. You do get a different story when you speak to older black southerners. The way they convey what they remember is different. Usually it's by example and they'll tell you in a very impassive way what happened to them or what they saw. Even if it's the same story someone else told, it's from a very different and emotional point of view.
DP: Like the story of a white man trying to find a gun to kill a black man who touched his car.
RDF: Yes. That's where you feel the divide that still exists.
DP: Yvette, do you still have family there?
Yvette Johnson: I have a lot of family still in Mississippi. My aunt, who is in the movie, lives in Greenville, which about 45 minutes from Greenwood. My mother is now in Phoenix, which is where I live. I was born in Greenwood but my immediate family left when I was two. My father, Leroy Jones, played football with the San Diego Chargers [1976-83] and we left when he signed a contract.
DP: Do both of you have the feeling that this film was destined to happen?
RDF: I'm enough of a fantasist to say there was a ghost calling to me. It was too weird how I found my father's television documentary with Booker and posted it; then David Zellerford, our producer, became obsessed with Booker; and meanwhile Yvette was looking for this piece of film of her grandfather. The collision of events was beyond serendipitous, it was spooky. Then we got to Greenwood and found that the building that had been Booker's Place was still there though deserted--and the buildings on that block of McLaurin Street, which used to contain a dozen bars and cafes, are gone except for Booker's Place. So the whole thing resonates with "somebody needs this story to be told."
DP: How did you two get together?
YJ: David Zellerford, our producing partner, brought us together. Raymond posted Booker's monologue on his blog and David couldn't get it out of his head and watched it over and over again. In that monologue, Booker said that part of the reason he endured the humiliation of waiting on customers in an all-white restaurant was because of his children. And David raised the question, "What happened to this guy and his kids?" So they started doing their own research. Meanwhile I had blogged for a couple of years and had been doing my own research about my grandfather. So they were able to find me. It was kind of neat in that they had about half the story and I had the other half. And we went to Greenwood to see what else we could find. I started this journey because I was looking for my heritage--it's me and my family, it's black America, that's where I take my pride in the film. Raymond has a deep personal connection, too, because of his father.
DP: How was it being in the film talking about your family?
YJ: I didn't know that I'd be on camera at all. But Raymond interviewed me and that was good, and it was about family, so I'd do anything.
DP: In the movie, you say you thought your grandfather, Booker, was an "accidental activist." Would you have been satisfied with that, and that it's not anything more than a family story?
YJ: Before I saw the film I was satisfied with that. The way the story of his being in a documentary was originally told to me made it sound as if was walking down the street and someone stuck a microphone in his face and asked, "What do you think?" And he just spoke off the cuff. I was impressed with just that and was excited that his statements had impact. But when I saw the documentary I saw that what he said was thoughtful and composed, and he'd thought about what he'd say for quite some time. It wasn't just a spur of the moment statement that he wished he could take back. It was intentional.
DP: And when he said it, he wanted it to be shown on television.
YJ: Exactly. Frank De Felitta was kind enough to give my grandfather many opportunities to save himself and not have his statements be seen nationally.
DP: Both of you see this film in terms of your family. Yvette, you want your family to see it so they can feel proud of Booker. Raymond, you want your father to see it partly, I would think, so he feels less guilt about having included Booker's monologue in his documentary and put him in jeopardy. You have proof that Booker was glad he said what he said but as it turns out, your father still feels guilty.
RDF: I'd say he feels ambivalent, without strong feelings one way or the other. He loves seeing that he was able to give Booker the stage that was so meaningful but has to struggle with the fact--as any documentarian does--that you're dealing with real lives. Especially when you allow someone to commit an act in public, for the record, on film, you take into consideration there might be ramifications. My father always erred on the side of caution except this once. That's why it still lives with him. The other thing--and this is why I started posting my father's films on a blog--was that he had a very strong body of work that he created for network television and it was more or less invisible. His films ran a couple of times and then were placed in a vault, and to me they represent my father's best work. They are terrific time capsules of the sixties, when he made them. They are of great value and I became their advocate and got them out there, which led to all of this.
DP: Would you have liked to have told your father that he needn't feel guilty because what Booker said in his documentary had no bearing on his death? Or would you have rather told him that even if it did have a bearing on his death, it was still worth showing--that he should take pride because Booker wanted it to be shown despite possible consequences?
RDF: The question really isn't what is going to happen in the future to Booker?, but was it appropriate for my father to censor Booker and say I know better than you, Booker? Who else would speak that way to Booker? Anybody who tried to control him during his whole life. They'd say, "We know better than you. Don't behave in such a manner." My father would have been like one of them if he told Booker he shouldn't say anything. I think that is what he finally grasped and understands why he let Booker choose to take the stage.
DP: Yvette, in the film Raymond shows a short version of Booker talking about working in the restaurant. Then later he allows the monologue to run its full course and now we see Booker really express the humiliations he experiences at work and how awful some white diners are to him. How did you feel watching the two versions?
YJ: I had seen both versions before the film was put together. Then when I saw the film with an audience and the longer version came on it dawned on me [tearing up] that what he did was so brave and that cost him so much. I just feel honored and excited and thankful that we've been able to bring his words to the world now. There's nothing else I'd rather do than take his brave moment and use it to help people deal with issues of race and have people learn about courage. It's amazing. When I watch it I'm just so proud of him.
DP: You're also watching with an audience who has never seen this footage.
YV: Right. It provides its own kind of lens, just hearing people respond by inhaling or laughing.
DP: In the movie, we learn that Booker told your aunt, his daughter, that he had a good life but earlier he said he was hurting all his life and it was always difficult. He's saying two different things.
YJ: Yes. He had a very difficult life but great too. He grew up thinking he'd been abandoned by his mother and was unwanted, although he didn't know she tried to get him back. He was a man of great character and was highly motivated and I think he built a great life for himself. He loved being a father to three children, he had a great place, he was fun, he was well known. He told his children to never be ashamed of who they were yet according to my mother he never talked about racial stuff or politics. I think in truth, he was humiliated every day but that's not the kind of truth he would share with his children because he wanted them to have hope for the future.
DP: Do you think he was a complex guy?
YJ: We know from what he said that he was incredibly smart. I think he also had to be complex to do what he did. He had been beaten years before and was being harassed by police and I really do think he knew he was going to be murdered when he told my aunt, "If anything happens to me, I had a good life." He was trying to get some peace of mind. Again, I do believe he had a good life. It depends on where you put your focus. He could think only of the things causing his pain and suffering but he chose to think of his blessings.
RDF: He may have also thought that the monologue redeemed a lot of the pain of his early life. He made big choices. He was illiterate but as an adult learned to read; he was a farmhand but left and got a job and also ran his own business. It's a stunning story. He made this speech that upset the balance of everything and ultimately he became a fulfilled man. There was no more hiding or living two lives.
DP: Documentarians make films that show either what they already knew or what they learn along the way.
RDF: We're definitely the latter. There were several things we were pursuing. We were interested in Yvette's search for her grandfather and in retracing my father's steps, and then because we had his original film we had this whole other pursuit--let's examine Greenwood today and compare and contrast with the Greenwood in 1965. We filmed a whole lot of interviews and could have made a whole other film. But we finally threw in the towel because it didn't fully support what were doing. As we were editing the film it became clear that it couldn't be all these movies and that was the least compelling aspect of it. They've already made civil rights documentaries and we didn't need this film to tell that story again. So we began with the idea that viewers already knew the basic civil rights story and just told Booker's story, filming his journey through his eyes only.
DP: But there's a scene when you gather people from Greenwood for a screening and we hear them talk. And one woman recalls how she loved Booker and also loved the racist men on the all-white town council during Booker's time. You must find that striking in particular.
YJ: I didn't feel offended or anything like that. Statements like hers make you see how complicated things are. We actually interviewed a man who was in Frank's film, someone who was against integration. If there were going to be bad guys we thought it would be him but we spent time in his home and he was just a truly kind, complicated person with some odd ideas about mixing with blacks. So I can't fault that woman for finding good qualities in him. A person may have race-based biases but that still doesn't fully define him. It's easier for them to talk about some of these issues of race if they don't have to be vilified.
DP: My feeling was that the woman didn't actually understand what those men did; I don't think she wanted to know of their transgressions or that of the police.
RDF: Those three men were civic leaders and my impression is that this woman was just a little girl or a teenager at the time. She had the point of view of her parents. This is something we got from getting to know these folks a little bit--when you grow up in a community where everyone is a segregationist, it isn't considered evil to be a segregationist. The white people even believed the black people wanted it to be that way. They weren't evil people but they were in a bad place at a bad time and they were trying to figure out what's the right side of things to be on.
DP: I have interviewed many ballplayers from the late 1940s and 1950s. White ballplayers of that time would tell me that after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947 that everything was fine for the black players who came after, and they truly believed they were content. The black players would tell me the opposite, that things were still very difficult. They just didn't complain to their white teammates.
YJ: That woman has a way to go but I commend her because she goes to these meetings every month, religiously, to bridge the gap between the races and listens to stories from the black side and tries to understand.
RFD: The old white gentry that we spoke to said their earliest playmates were the sons of the field workers. So it's proof racial bias is taught and not innate.
YJ: It's interesting because I really do feel sometimes that there was genuine affection by individual white kids toward black kids but they went along with the notion that the blacks didn't seem to mind that the white kids went to school while the black kids worked in the fields. They didn't address it and then twenty, thirty, or forty years later they feel guilty because they realize the black kids did mind. So they choose to reminisce about the affection and not the harm done to the blacks.
DP: Someone else at the Greenwood screening in the movie talks about being one of the white kids raised by black women, the help. Talk about that and your reactions to the movie, The Help.
RDF: I haven't read the book or seen the movie and part of that was because we were there and suddenly The Help was in the midst of all this. They filmed it in Greenwood while we were there, so of course we heard a lot about it. That was a $30M movie and we were about a $30 movie.
YJ (laughing): We'd drive past the fancy hotel where they were staying.
RDF: That man at the gathering is the grandson of a very famous segregationist politician. He also said that Klan members come up to him and commend him for his family heritage and he's appalled because he wants nothing to do with that. Part of the reason he's in that group is that he's trying to work out his complicated legacy. I thought that was interesting because everyone was at the screening for the right reasons and was speaking up, he still didn't quite get it. Okay, fine, you had a white mother and black "mother," but just apologize, you don't have to defend why you also considered her a mother!
YJ: Right, they're all stuck in that time and believe everyone was happy.
DP: Yvette, how do you feel watching that paternalistic white landlord in Frank De Felitta's film giving a tour of the shacks where the blacks live in on his property?
YJ: That's a terrible scene. He walks into that man's house and the look on that man's face tells so much. He looks so nervous, afraid to say the wrong thing. He may have been coached to act in a certain way for the cameras. And then the landlord humiliates a woman.
DP: He was trying to draw a distinction between "good blacks" and "bad blacks," who don't deserve his help.
RDF: Booker talks about that in his monologue, how at Lusco's the owners would tell customers, "Don't talk to Booker like that, he's a good nigger." It's very interesting he saw the distinction that way, and I hadn't thought of that before. There are the ones who are okay and the ones who aren't.
DP: Has there been any thought of making Booker's Place a shrine of sorts?
YJ: There's a Freedom Trail that's being developed and markers are being placed at locations where important civil rights events took place and the council that does that is considering putting a marker at Booker's Place. That's something that has been discussed in the last couple of months. The people who own the property are fine with that.
DP: Would you like to show Booker the film?
RDF: Oh, god, yes, that would be wonderful.
DP: You are quoted in the film's production notes talking about documentaries in general: "I wonder about the subjects' reactions to films about their lives and how they felt about having exposed themselves so nakedly." I know Booker only from this film, but I kind of think he'd just nod approvingly.
RDF: You develop kind of a context for why he did what he did and who he was and we often don't do that for ourselves in our lives. I'd like the opportunity to show it to him and say, "I painted a little picture of your life. Does it feel good knowing that or do you not need to know that?"
DP: What else would you ask him?
RDF: I'd ask what he thought about my father and the crew and whether he was happy with his decision. I'd like to know when he decided that he'd go as far as he did. And did he feel, ultimately, that he did it for the right people?
DP: And if he had counsel. I don't know if he was religious and whether he would have spoken to a minister.
RDF: That would be interesting to know. Because my father didn't walk in to Booker's Place knowing that was what they were going to film.
DP: Do you think Booker decided to deliver his candid monologue realizing he'd have impact or because he needed to hear himself say it out loud himself?
YJ: I think he really needed to do it for himself. I think he was boiling over. He spent twenty-five years at Lusco's waiting on white customers while feeling the way he felt. We know that a few years earlier he'd learned the reason he wasn't raised by his mother but by a family that didn't really want him was that the plantation lifestyle was still prevalent. I told Frank, "If it hadn't been for your show, there would have been nothing else." He needed to do something. He understood there was danger in being on the national news because he lived in Greenwood.
DP: if you got to spend five minutes with your grandfather, what questions would you really like to ask him?
YJ: Gosh...To be honest, if I got to spend five minutes with him I don't know if I'd do anything profound or ask questions. I know he loved jazz, so maybe we'd listen to a record. Whatever he wanted to talk about would be fine. I'd just want to hear his voice and have his eyes lock on mine. At a minimum I'd tell him I was proud of him for his part in changing the world but I don't know if that would be the bulk of it. I'd just enjoy his company.

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