16 July, 2012

Review: Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story by Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson

Booker Wright was a man.

I don't know if he was a perfect man. I doubt he was. From my own life I know that overcoming obstacles and perfection rarely walk hand in hand. Booker Wright was a man who kept his eye on the prize. Work hard. Save up. Build something better. Then NBC came to town. What do you do if you've been silent your whole life and someone asks you to speak? A man speaks. So Booker Wright did. To modern ears what he said may not seem very strong. His short speech is available on the internet and was recently featured in various stories about this film. The important part of Booker Wright's story is that he waited. He waited until his speech would be documented, until his speech could endure. Booker's words were a pebble in his own life, a pebble in the lives of those who heard him on the night his words aired. The ripples slowly faded.

Just as Booker's life collided with filmmaker Frank De Felitta's, so Booker's granddaughter collides with Frank's son Raymond. The resulting film, Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story gives voice to the hundreds of Bookers that America held in the recent past. There were Booker Wrights standing up across the south and refusing to Yassir another day. We are taught about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King not because these men were alone in their work, but because they were the most recorded, the most organized, the most eloquent. The black men of America are not made up of the nightly news. The black men of America are Booker Wright. If you ask them to speak, they will.

Booker knew there was a price to his words and he paid it. While he survived the initial attack, he was later murdered. The film, like the family, have their own suspicious about the event. I don't know if I agree. It is tempting to believe in something grand conspiring to put Booker back in his place. It's even reasonable. But sometimes the greatest story can end for senseless reasons. Someone gets drunk. Someone gets even. There may be a broader narrative at work but there doesn't have to be. Booker Wright is enough. We don't need more. The film, however, does. Using the scant source material of Booker Wright available to them the filmmakers rely on a repetition of key scenes or phrases to drive various points home. It's both effective and off-putting. While it doesn't damage the viewing experience it does make the film seem lighter in content than it is. De Felitta interviews many principals of the time and of his father's earlier NBC documentary.

For all that has changed, not much has. Faced with black pain, the white response is still a bewildered "Ain't I been good to you?" One white man stands to talk about that old canard, the black mother. Faced with a black perspective he becomes very emotional. He says he wouldn't have given up that relationship for anything, that he was equally important to the black woman, that he treated her well and she loved him. This is America in a nutshell. Faced with the reality of black life, white America won't give up it's privileges for anything. We are still, in so very many ways, the plantation owner of the 1966 film. And Booker Wright's words are as brave and important now as they were then.

Yvette Johnson, the granddaughter in the film, has collected her blog posts about Booker and Booker's Place into an ebook. I scanned her blog after writing this review and I may cover the book at a later time. As well, there is an excellent review of Booker's Place from the Chicago Sun-Times blog. I don't usually do links, but these are worth a glance.

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