Monday, October 7, 2013

BOOKER'S PLACE: The new Raymond De Felitta documentary about his dad's 1965 doc -- and a little-known man who gave his life for the cause

With any film from Raymond De Felitta (shown below) you always get more than you expect. Whether the man is making a documentary ('Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris) or a narrative film (Two Family House and City Island), you can count on something richer and deeper than first glance might suggest. BOOKER'S PLACE: A Mississippi Story -- his new documentary about the titular Booker and the little restaurant he owned back in the 1960s in Greenwood, Mississippi (shown two photos below) -- is another stealth missile that takes us into a time and place we'd forgotten (or hardly knew in the first place) and lays bare the attitudes and actions that made the struggle for civil rights in the south so daunting and often so deadly.

From what we see in this fine documentary, although the actions in the south have changed (some), the attitudes unfortunately remain much the same. Too many southern whites. as we see in this film, are still making excuses for their actions. ("We were caught in a system that was flawed," notes one woman. OK: But who created that system and very happily kept it going for a century or two?) Yet the beating heart of this thrilling documentary also hits one of the most important questions documentarians (good ones, anyway) always ask themselves: "OK: I've filmed this. But what might happen if it is shown to the public?" According to the filmmaker's own father, Frank De Felitta, who made the landmark documentary for NBC News back in 1965, around which the present film is based, "When you film living people, you take on a huge responsibility." At the end of his life, and in this particular case, the senior De Felitta was not sure he had done the right thing.

After you've finished the watching this film, along with most other viewers, you will probably disagree with the original filmmaker -- as do, I think, his son and the living relatives of Booker Wright (below), the man at the center of it all. Mr. Wright and his early history of seeming abandonment make up a portion of the film, and that story alone would be enough to fill up most movies.

Yet it is Booker's personality (he was a man very well-liked by his black peers, and even, for most of his life, by his white overseers) that takes on even greater importance in the film. The unusual character of the man leads to the remarkably honest speech shown on network television throughout the USA that arguably was one of the major incidents in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The film begins with this speech but then circles around to make us fully understand what it meant to the world -- and to the man who made it.

You have to hear and see this amazing speech, as we do several times during the film, for it to sink in fully. What it says and what effect it had on Booker, his family, the white community in which he worked, and now down two generations of the Black community is telling in so many ways.

The movie also has a lot to say about the documentary film-making process, and about Frank De Felitta (shown above, and below, with his son) and why he was so intent on making this documentary newscast from Mississippi in the first place. We learn Frank's history in World War II and what the Holocaust meant to him and to his sense of justice, and how he began to equate what has happened to the Jews with what had and was continuing to happen to American Blacks.

As Raymond weaves all this together -- his father's history and that of the original film; his own situation as the son of the filmmaker; Booker's story and that of his family, particularly his granddaughter, Yvette Johnson (below, with one of Booker's contemporaries) who becomes one of the driving forces in making this movie -- he creates an indelible portrait of everything from black life on the plantation (and after) to the particular and peculiar affect blacks had to take with their white "betters."

All this is shown in a way that puts even further to shame a piece of "movie-movie" action crap like Django Unchained. Here is reality offered up quietly, shockingly, artfully, with humor, discipline and grace. What a legacy Booker has left us. What a legacy Frank and Raymond De Felitta have also given us via their films. What a movie this is!

Available now on Netflix streaming, Booker's Place -- via Tribeca Film and running 92 minutes -- is, all by itself, worth an entire year of the Netflix digital service. Certainly among the best of last year's documentaries, its subjects, together with the events it covers, place it in a class all its own.

The photo of Raymond De Felitta, second from top, 
is by Larry Busacca and comes courtesy of Getty Images.

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