The white citizens of Greenwood, Mississippi, were shocked out of their sleepy, backwoods comfort zone one night in May 1966 when an African-American waiter named Booker Wright went off script on national television.
Working at a whites-only restaurant named Lusco’s, Wright, like his fellow black Lusco’s waiters, could deliver a breathless recitation of the entire menu. This gimmick drew the attention of Frank De Felitta’s documentary crew, in town to film an hour-long special on race-relations for NBC.
When the cameras were turned on Wright, what began as an oral menu turned into his chance to serve up the cold truth about the racism and humiliation he experienced every day on the job. After the special aired, there were tragic consequences to his outspokenness: Wright’s own business was firebombed, and he was assaulted by a Greenwood police officer. In 1973, Wright was murdered. Filmmaker Frank De Felitta wondered if the footage he aired of Wright was responsible.
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will open in theaters and on-demand this week, investigates the aftermath through the eyes of De Felitta’s son, Raymond, and Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson. Yvette had never seen her grandfather’s famous monologue until Raymond posted the special online.
“This is really about one person, his decision, what it was like being somebody like him and what price he paid for that,” says Raymond De Felitta, who found himself heading to Mississippi at the same age as his father had been when he filmed Booker Wright’s impromptu testimony. “I would love to give people a greater appreciation of what Southern blacks had to undergo [during that time].”
While Booker’s Place was shot in black-and-white, giving the film a noir-like murder mystery feel, De Felitta found a lot of gray in the story.
“One of the driving reasons behind making the film was to try to show this was a much more complicated society that underwent a lot of complicated changes,” De Felitta tells TakePart. Someone on De Felitta’s crew worried that the monochrome palette might hamper the audience’s ability to differentiate between archival and contemporary footage. De Felitta stuck with the black and white. He wanted to show Greenwood as “a place very much caught in a specific time. Though the mindset has changed, a lot of things have stayed the same and perhaps even gotten worse.”
Which is why Wright’s words—as an “accidental activist,” as he’s been called—may hold just as much currency now as they did when he proudly spoke out in May 1966. Booker’s message is surely the impetus that drove both Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson to push the legacy forward.
In addition to the film, Johnson found a new medium for Wright’s message by creating a blog in his honor.
What do you think? Has America’s racial divide lessened since 1966? Worsened? Remained the same? Leave some thoughts in comments.