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BOOKER’S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY (director: Raymond De Felitta; cinematographer: Joe Victorine; editor: George Gross; music: David Cieri; cast: Hodding Carter III, Frank De Felitta, Yvette Johnson, Katherine Jones; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Zellerford; Tribeca Film; 2012)

“A heart-felt movie that gives you a good idea of how backward a state is Mississippi.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Raymond De Felitta (“City Island”), in this passionate black-and-white shot documentary,visits Greenwood, Miss., the segregated backwater town, famous for fervent KKK activity, razed black churches and lynchings, and the site of his father Frank’s documentary on racism in the South, which was made for NBC news in 1966 and shown nation-wide and then forgotten everywhere but in a vengeful Greenwood.

The ugliness of whites in their racial attitudes comes glaringly to light when a brief interview with a black illiterate waiter, Booker Wright, exposes how hurt he is inside from being treated as an inferior citizen, even though on the outside he might be all smiles. In Booker’s brief interview, he goes through his sing-song spiel he delivers nightly for his job at Lusco’s, the local steakhouse that serves only whites (uses the ploy to beat the integration laws by claiming to be a private club). Since there are no menus Booker and the other Negro waiters must recite what’s available. For the interview he gives us a taste of how that sounds and then goes off script to tell how he feels about his white customers: “Some is nice, some is not, some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim and some call me nigger.” He then tells how that makes him feel: “I have to smile, the meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you’re crying inside.” He further tells why he endures it: “so that my children can get an education and not suffer what I suffered.”

What life is like for a black person in the South, in the 1960s, is revisited by replaying and re-evaluating Booker’s interview for a 2012 audience, for Raymond’s still living guilt-ridden 90-year-old father Frank, unfairly blaming himself for Booker’s later troubles, and for Booker’s sensitive writer granddaughter Yvette Johnson, curious to know more about her courageous grandfather. We learn that soon after Booker was let go at the restaurant because of white pressure that he worked full-time at his own black restaurant. We also learn he was beaten by a racist white policeman, who was never charged with a crime. Later Booker had his restaurant damaged and burned by racists (in a town where all the authority positions were held by those in the KKK, a black couldn’t expect justice), and in 1973 he was killed by an unruly black man in his restaurant he gave the boot to and who returned to shoot him, someone Yvette believes might have been used by the white racists.

Despite the tragic results, which were expected by the realistic Booker, he believed the time had come for him to be an activist and stop shuffling and talk honestly about how he’s treated by his white customers.

It’s a heart-felt movie that gives you a good idea of how backward a state is Mississippi and how far it has changed today, and lets you imagine how far it still has to go to achieve better race relations and equality. This documentary tells of a cross-section of Mississippi whites who really have no defense for defending a flawed segregation system that is indefensible, and of the many blacks who still haven’t got their act together and value education as much as volunteer Head-Start bus driver Booker did as a way to achieve a better life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”