I’ve been in conversation for the past few weeks with a friend who grew up in the Mississippi Delta about the fallout from everything that occurred there during the 60s and 70s and where the Delta is now. I don’t know that there will ever come a day when race is not a hot button topic in America. It’s either the pink elephant in the room or a snarling divisive pit bull. We don’t often get a chance to engage in productive conversation about what happened then, what’s happening now and how to move forward together.
With his film, Booker’s Place, Raymond DeFelitta gives us that chance.
On the Tribeca Film site, William Goldberg writes: “In 1965, documentary filmmaker Frank DeFelitta traveled to Mississippi to shoot a film on the subject of racism in the American South. As he went about observing life in Mississippi and interviewing the locals, Frank was introduced to an African-American waiter named Booker Wright. With utter candor and a brazen lack of concern for his own well-being, Booker appeared on tape in the documentary and spoke openly and honestly about the realities of living in a racist society. This brief interview forever changed the lives of Booker and his family, and more than 40 years later, Frank’s son Raymond DeFelitta (director of City Island) returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of this fateful interview.” (source)
Mr. DeFelitta answered some poignant questions for Southernist about his trip to Mississippi, what he found there, and the experience of making this film:
Is your father’s original piece still viewable anywhere?
Not at the moment. I took it off Youtube when we started negotiating with NBC for the footage to be used in Booker’s Place. Hopefully we’ll be able to include it as a DVD extra.
Was this your first experience with Mississippi?
Yes, I’d never been in anywhere in the south except Florida…and that was Miami!
What preconceived notions did you go to Mississippi with? Did any of that change as you worked on this project?
I had no preconceived notions about the people. My sense was that it was a different place from the place that my father had visited fifty years ago and that was correct, to a large extent. What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of poverty. You hear about these things as statistics but until you see it up close, you don’t realize that that “other America” truly does exist and it’s appalling. Gives a special jolt to the whole “one-percent” bullshit and the money being spent to elect Presidents who can do nothing about the poverty I’m talking about.
It is not often that people get a chance to go back and talk about certain things that happened during that time in Mississippi. How much resistance were you met with when you first got there and how did you overcome that and get folks talking?
The people in Mississippi–at least the ones I talked with–are eloquent and interested in their own history. They’ve thought a lot about these issues, about their dark past and want to explore the truth of it with others since they feel (rightly) that they’ve been stereotyped over the years
as a land filled with Klan members and nothing else. The only thing they ever made clear that would make them uncomfortable would be if they sensed we were there to patronize them i.e. portray them as “hicks” and in some way demean them.
What would have happened to/with this film if you had not been able to get folks to talk to you? Could you have still made this film – would the story have been worth telling – if you didn’t get the interviews you got (e.g. the judge)?
No, there’s no historical retrospective possible, to my mind, without witnesses and direct testimony. It’s what separates a true narrative documentary from, say, a History Channel documentary. Not that I’m knocking what HC docs, but they are a different breed than what I do and am interested in.
It seems that your dad may have suspected that something bad happened to Booker. Was he surprised to learn of his demise?
Yes as was I.
That last sound bite on the trailer is a bit gut-wrenching. Does your father truly regret leaving Booker in? Would he have done Booker a disservice if he had left him out, even if it meant sparing his life?
I think he has mixed feelings, true ambivalence (which defined is: strong feelings in either direction). Ultimately I think he realizes that censoring Booker “for his own good” would have been just as patronizing an act as any white person had committed on Booker through his life.
What do you expect that New York audiences will think of or get from this film?
I don’t think of NY audiences as a separate group than other audiences really. I hope any audience gets a chance to see the tragedy of the Civil Rights struggle through a fresh lens–that of one man, and not one of the heroes (King, Evers) but a simple working man. Personalizing the story will, I hope, give people a more nuanced perspective on the subject and how many-sided the story of the struggle was.
Is this just another sad Mississippi story? Why is this story important?
Because it’s the story of a great movement but seen from the point of view of one man’s life and his reactions to his everyday treatment, his life’s history and how he finally broke down and spoke out.
In what ways did it seem that the fallout from the 60s was still affecting the lives of Mississippians today?
In the south it seems like every conversation eventually circles back to the subject of race. It’s their original sin and they can’t get away from the subject. So yes, in terms of dealing with the past and trying to move forward into the future–and making filmmakers and journalists and
other interested parties understand the complexity of their history–there is still much fallout.
Is there another narrative about Mississippi that will begin to be told one day?
Progress is slow but it’s undeniable. The town of Greenwood, Miss. was a terrorist state for black people back when my father made his film. And the schools were segregated. Neither of those things are true anymore–something that none of the white community’s leaders who my father shows in his film would have ever thought possible. So even though much remains to be done, those are two major changes. I think life in the south is like life for all of us. There’s an inextricable pull to events. We can’t go backward so we must go forward.
Booker’s Place is now available on-demand and is playing at Noho 7 in Los Angeles, CA and opens at Quad Cinema in New York, NY tomorrow.
Please also visit the blog
of Booker’s granddaughter Yvette for additional riveting commentary and thought provoking conversation.