Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help parents choose what to watch. This week, as our critic attends the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan through April 29, he focuses on a powerful new documentary, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.
While many years may have passed since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the issues of that era remain a part of our lives. In the not-to-be-missed Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, documentarian Raymond DeFelitta investigates the current state of racial relations in the South through the eyes of his father, Frank, who made a landmark documentary on the subject in the mid-1960s.
At that time, when television broadcast in black-and-white, issues of racial tension were often swept under carpets in lovely Southern homes. People who professed their faith in churches on Sundays spent the other days trying to preserve a way of life that separated colors.
African Americans in the South were denied any number of civil liberties and freedoms that others took for granted; many found themselves as indentured as their families a century before. Opportunities were denied, freedoms forbidden, rights stifled. People lived according to rules set by a social system still locked in the struggle of a different time.
The elder DeFelitta, a filmmaker for NBC television, dared to reveal these truths in a landmark documentary broadcast in May 1966. He looked at daily life in the small town of Greenwood, Miss., through the eyes of a gentle African American man, Booker Wright, who worked in the white world as the most engaging waiter in town and fulfilled his own dreams by starting his own restaurant in the black part of town.
In a brief but powerful appearance, Booker casually described his day-to-day life with an endearing sense of acceptance that personalized the realities of African American life in the South. He became a local celebrity until the controversy created by the film — because he dared to describe the daily impact of injustice — forever changed his life just as it captured the realities that many tried to deny. Suddenly the public issues of race had a voice that many did not want to hear.
In present day, the filmmaker’s son, Raymond, returns to Greenwood to dissect the impact of the original film as well as how day-to-day living may have changed in almost 50 years. Through moving interviews with Booker’s family, as well as a creative use of archival and new footage, the younger DeFelitta carefully suggests that while the politics may have shifted, what divides people may not be much different. For too many, life remains separated by color even if the walls are less easy to detect. And they have fresh coats of paint.
“When I think about young people learning about the 1960s in school,” DeFelitta told me at the Tribeca Film Festival, “I realize they only learn about the big-ticket events — the marches, the work of Martin Luther King, the changes in legislation. Just as my father, I wanted to find a way to humanize the issues, and returning to his story was a most natural approach.”
When asked about the balance in the film — between situations that shock and moments that touch — DeFelitta expresses optimism in the movie’s moral.
“Truth is cathartic. This film, even though many of its situations are tragic, leaves us with a sense of hope, because it is filled with truth.”
DeFelitta’s meaningful work, incorporating the images and words of his father, reminds us that we can only change worlds if we authentically view their realities. The journey for racial freedom — or any religious or cultural freedom — will only begin if we look into ourselves for any bias we may conveniently hide.
Booker’s Place is a moving, thoughtful documentary that dares to ask us to take that serious look.
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story runs 90 minutes. For more information on the Tribeca Film Festival, go to www.tribecafilm.com.