By Gregory Crofton
In 1965, Frank De Felitta traveled to Greenwood, Miss., to shoot the NBC documentary “MISSISSIPPI: A SELF PORTRAIT.” The murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 just outside Philadelphia, Miss., as well as other race-related crimes led to the film project.
De Felitta’s plan was to talk to the white community in hopes of finding potential some self-examination and progress.
De Felitta interviewed the mayor and other prominent whites in the community, all of whom spoke kindly of “coloreds.” “Every Mississippian talked about how much they loved their blacks,” said De Felitta years later reflecting on the making of the documentary. “That’d be the first thing they’d say. Black people raised me. I had a white mother but I had a black mother too. She raised me. They were always trying to put that across, how they treated them like family, beloved people. But then they didn’t act that way to them.”
No blacks were suppose to appear in the film, but one of De Felitta’s associates heard about a waiter and black business owner named Booker Wright. Wright was willing to be in the film reciting a spoken-word menu, just like he did every night at the popular Greenwood restaurant, Lusco’s. His recitation had a melodic ring to it. De Felitta didn’t know how he’d use the footage, but he decided to go ahead and film it.
But Wright kept talking. He revealed that some whites he served were vicious to him because he was black and said that this was very painful and humiliating for him. After shooting the interview, De Felitta cautioned Wright about it, making sure he wanted to be recorded saying these things.
Wright assured him to go ahead with it. “The time has come, don’t you understand?” Wright told De Felitta. Not long after the film was broadcast in the South on NBC, Wright was badly beaten (a policeman committed the crime), and the restaurant he owned was destroyed and lit on fire. De Felitta tried to visit him in the hospital but Wright didn’t want him to come.
That wasn’t the end of the story. Six years later, Wright was murdered while working at his place of business, Booker’s Place. De Felitta didn’t learn of the crime until more than 40 years later when his son, Raymond, also a filmmaker, told him in 2011. Raymond heard about the murder not long after he had posted the footage his father shot of Wright on YouTube.
Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, who had never met her grandfather, but thought of him as a kind of “accidental activist,” found the footage online and watched it. Johnson and Raymond De Felitta soon got in touch with each other and she revealed that her grandfather had died in the hospital after having his stomach blasted by someone armed with a shotgun.
At the suggestion of De Felitta’s producing partner David Zellerford, Johnson and De Felitta took a trip to Greenwood, Miss., to find out if residents remember Wright and his infamous interview for NBC, and to see if they can learn anything about the circumstances of his murder. Raymond said at first he expected to make a short documentary about the trip, but it became feature-length project once they started to learn more about the case.
(Watch a trailer for the film. The story continues below, followed by an interview with Raymond De Felitta).
“BOOKER’S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY” is a rich, fascinating, black-and-white film, artfully crafted and coupled with a poignant soundtrack. It creates a vivid sense of history on screen, one that shows what life was like for blacks and whites in Greenwood, Miss., circa the 1960s. The film also tells the story of a proud granddaughter learning about her grandfather’s truly heroic act.
The documentary also demonstrates how the De Felittas, both father and son, are skilled at facing troubling and potentially dangerous situations that resulted in significant light being shed on some of the darkest recesses of American history.
Channel Nonfiction interviewed Raymond De Felitta about “BOOKER’S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY.” De Felitta said he found residents of Greenwood open and cooperative while making the film, but since its release he felt there has been a somewhat “chilly silence” type of a response to it, in addition to a few angry editorials in the local newspaper.
“BOOKER’S PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY” is available to rent or download here.
Below find an interview with Raymond De Felitta, director of “BOOKER’s PLACE: A MISSISSIPPI STORY.”
Channel Nonfiction: I went to school at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) so I’m familiar with Greenwood. You captured it. You really did. And it’s not easy to capture Mississippi. So congratulations.
Raymond De Felitta: Thank you. It’s a fascinating place, it was quite a journey being there on and off so much that year. Yeah, I didn’t know the South really at all until I went to do that.
Channel Nonfiction: What was your goal in making “BOOKER’S PLACE?”
Raymond De Felitta: Well, the way the film came together was really unusual so it didn’t actually start out with a goal. I posted a bunch of documentaries that my father made for NBC in the 60s on my blog and one of them was his film “Mississippi: A Self Portrait.” And that attracted the attention of Boker’s granddaughter Yvette who is in the movie. She got in touch with my producing partner David Zellerford, who saw that this could be an interesting opportunity. She had never seen any of the film. I mean I guess we explain all of this in the movie. But the general feeling at the beginning was I thought ‘Well this might make a really interesting short documentary of me going to Mississippi with her and trying to find out a little bit about her grandfather,’ because it was just so unusual that my father and her grandfather had this thing in common, this moment. So it was really … and I’ve made two documentaries and I’m making a third now, I’ve tended to begin these things without a really clear goal as to where I’m going. And for me that’s what’s exciting because I also make dramas, non-documentary films, to me what’s exciting about documentaries is that you’re filming and you’re exploring at the same time and the journey becomes the film. So I didn’t have a specific goal. I was hoping to go there and learn along with her and gradually the story not just Booker but of that part of the world, and how it is now, and how it is then, becomes the focus.
Channel Nonfiction: You had never been to Mississippi even though you’d had seen you’re Dad’s film “Mississippi: A Self Portrait”?
Raymond De Felitta: Yeah, no I had never been. All I knew about the South was Florida and Texas and that’s not a nuanced version of the South, you have to go to Alabama, Mississippi and places like that to really understand the heart and soul of the place.
Channel Nonficiton: So you were down in Mississippi for a full year?
Raymond De Felitta: No, within a year we came and went four or five times. It was always with a couple months in between, so it began to feel like a base I kept returning to and understanding better. It was almost like another community had entered my life two years ago when we did it.
Channel Nonfiction: Did you experience any resistance from the residents, white or black, when you went to talk to them about Booker?
Raymond De Felitta: No, not really. They were very open and cordial. Those who knew the story thought it was very interesting we had crossed paths, vis-à-vis my father many years ago. It’s a strange place and a strange story, because on the one hand it’s evolved in a lot of ways that are obvious and they really do want to talk about their history and who they are and who they were. And yet on the other hand, there is still the essential division. It’s very bifurcated. The blacks still don’t believe really anything has changed on some level and people want things to change but they’re also wary of being characterized by outsiders. So there was a dissonance I would say ultimately. And at the end of the day, I’m not sure that too many of the people in Greenwood, the white people who participated, really liked the film. So it made me feel like, because I didn’t think it was an unfair look them at all, they may not really be as progressive or open to self-examination as they hoped to be.
Channel Nonfiction: You’re saying once they saw the finished film they didn’t necessarily like it?
Raymond De Felitta: Well I know several people who definitely didn’t like it. But I also sort of felt I’d get more response from the participants just in terms of how much time I spent with them and how important I thought their story was and it was kind of a chilly silence I would say. Especially after the Dateline NBC airing the documentary.
Channel Nonfiction: Did they air entire documentary or did they just do a story on it?
Raymond De Felitta: Dateline did a one-hour story on it. They didn’t air my film. They did a story of me and Yvette going there and a story of Booker. They kind of made their own documentary.
Channel Nonfiction: My impression, I was there from 1997 to 2000, and it’s a tough … Mississippi it’s like history has frozen itself in a lot of places there and that’s what makes it so interesting.
Channel Nonfiction: So it was sort of a chilly silence, you didn’t hear that much from people that you worked with in the film. Did you hear from the judge with the gold teeth (Judge Gray Evans)?
Raymond De Felitta: You know he passed away. So I’m not sure he saw the film. But I did get a really nice communication from I believe his granddaughter. And it felt to me that she wouldn’t have bothered to communicate if they hadn’t like it or believed in what we did with the film. That Gray Evans, that judge, he was a notable progressive and very outspoken, and a guy really from Alabama, so he really came from the heart of that whole time and place and era. So he was a fascinating guy and gave a pretty amazing interview. He, and this is to me the essence of documentary making, he turned the key on the story when he let it, on camera suddenly, let it out that the cop had beaten up Booker, because that was not planned and we didn’t know that. But in the middle of his interview he talked about the beating that my father had heard Booker took. And you know Judge Evans named him, he said “Curtis Underwood, Curtis” beat him up and they didn’t press charges. I mean I remember that night after the interview I turned to my producer and I was like, ‘Let’s look at that interview again.’ You’re sitting for hours interviewing people sometimes you’re not really hearing everything they are saying. But it occurred to me later that I think he said something crazy that’s like really important that we should watch. And we re-watched the interview and that led us to start scratching the surface of what the police were about in Greenwood at that time. And that led to the whole portion of the film where we started talking to people who remembered the most terrifying white policeman, how they treated black people, so the film started to grow then in that direction. So this is really a police state well through the 1960s by no means … brotherhood didn’t descend on Mississippi all because of some marches, it’s still a police state. Those guys like Curtis Underwood, and there were some others, I don’t mean to keep naming him alone. There is still fear. Those names are still known down there. That’s the thing that I really came away from knowing the community, yeah know I would mention those names to black people and they would kind of just roll their eyes. And be like ‘Yeah I remember him really well.’ They lived in fear of him. So that was really the turning point of the film as we were doing it was when the judge did go there with us and we said ‘Oh, that’s a place we have to follow.’
Channel Nonfiction: You obviously ended up investigating sort of a civil rights possibly related murder, and that’s not an easy thing to do. One of the key moments was that information. Did you then take a number of steps and put a lot of work into investigating the case?
Raymond De Felitta: Yes, we tried, unfortunately there’s really not much left to investigate. Booker’s death in the hospital was just ruled natural because of the gunshot because infection set in. There was no investigation, no coroner’s report. The follow up of the trial – that trial, in which (Lloyd Cork) was put away for murder – lasted two days. I mean a murder trial that lasts two days, that’s astonishing. There’s no paper trail. It was open and shut. It was done very quickly and they locked that guy up for life. As I point out in the movie they didn’t plead it out, which would have typically been the way to do it and he’s not come up for parole so you know they shut that guy away. Now, one of the things, and I’m happy to discuss this, because I’ve been criticized for it too, because we didn’t have really our own case to make some people have said, ‘Well it’s unfair for us to have even inferred any of this stuff.’ Because if you’re going to do that, I guess some people feel that is bordering on stories that shouldn’t be told by innuendo and I you know there is a lot innuendo in the last part of that film. But that doesn’t feel to me that that’s off limits when you’re dealing with a subject like this. I felt that it was important to raise the questions. I can’t answer them. I don’t believe anybody is going to be able to answer them ever. But there’s certainly enough questions to be raised and in so doing it wasn’t that I was looking to solve a crime. I was basically kind of looking at that part of the film as to say look at how this place functions. Look at what the impact was on this man and look at the history wrapped inside of an enigma that the Civil Rights Era truly was. So for some people that works and they got it. For some other people, there was a couple angry editorials in the Greenwood paper saying I crossed a line. You see this goes to what you’re doing making a documentary film. I don’t think you’re making a piece of journalism. I think that a documentary film exists on a slightly different and perhaps more ambivalent plane of nonfiction. If I were a journalist, I would be writing it or I’d be making a magazine piece, a news magazine piece. But a documentary to me is as much about fact as it’s also about the impressions of the filmmaker exploring that fact, at least the best documentaries are to me. The ones that I am interested in are not strictly factual. They are also about the filmmaker and the filmmaker’s interest in the subject and the filmmaker’s journey. So to me that is not only valid but actually a really important piece of the documentary and was certainly my interest as we we’re exploring it because we stumbled across a very mysterious murder and that’s not what we thought we were going to investigate when we started the whole process.
Channel Nonfiction: Well I was sort of surprised by it at first, but on second watch I noticed that you really had investigated … really you found the offender’s mother … there was quite a bit of evidence in there as well as implication. And also you were honest about not knowing. But I think to not have addressed it would be to do what people always do.
Raymond De Felitta: Well exactly, that’s a very good way to think of it. I mean yeah then it’s just yet another silenced part of that history. In a similar way, when my father, when we interviewed him, and he was struggling with, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I have shown this clip of Booker on national TV that got him into so much trouble?’ Yvette, the granddaughter’s opinion was, if your father hadn’t done it he would have been to doing what everybody did to Booker for his whole life. He would have been silenced again. So yeah I agree. This tale was shut down the minute it happened and the guy was locked up and everybody said ‘Poor Booker he was just the victim of a random shooting,’ but they didn’t really know the story of harassment and tension and the level of dislike that the white authority had for the outspoken black.
Channel Nonfiction: One thing I wasn’t clear about was when Booker was shot versus when your father made his film?
Raymond De Felitta: He was shot about six year later.
Channel Nonfiction: And then also you had to think that Booker pistol whipped this guy and you put that in there too, so there was still a real conflict to chew on, no?
Raymond De Felitta: Oh yeah. Like I say, there is no definitive story we’re ever going to really get out of it.
Channel Nonfiction: To switch gears, obviously there is a mood about the film, and its shot in black and white, and the music is awesome and you’re a jazz composer. Why did you chose black and white?
Raymond De Felitta: The music is all by David Cieri, whose a really talented jazz and I would actually classify him as more third-stream composer. And that was a wonderful accident. He was friend of the editor (George Gross) and the editor just brought me this CD and said, ‘I don’t know why this music feels like our movie.’ It’s always for me like a really magical moment in filmmaking where you put a piece of music against the film and when it works suddenly the movie just takes off to another place. So David’s music became kind of integrated from the minute we were editing. In terms of black and white, I just found when we got down there, the DP (director of photographer) Joe Victorine and I were talking about how do we look at this in an interesting way. Because Mississippi you can’t make a bad shot there, even the ugly stuff is beautiful, it’s just so atmospheric and so what it is, and the beautiful stuff is very beautiful. We just sort of started feeling let’s not make this just … again it’s not just documentary, it’s impressions and the time period that we were talking about. And also the fact that my father’s film is in black-and-white led us to just one day turn off the color on the camera. We were technically shooting in color but once we did we just had that kind of moment of going, ‘Oh this is a real noir look,’ and this becomes a kind of film noir documentary. And then you know once you kind of felt the style with the wide angle lenses and driving around the roads and the movie developed a visual attitude if you will while we were shooting it.
Channel Nonfiction: It’s beautiful. The roads are something that I feel is key to understanding the flavor down there. I really enjoyed your shots of the roads.
Raymond De Felitta: Yeah I know. Mississippi is just evocative of so much of its own life and history, like I said, I would look in certain directions and go this is exactly what it looked like in 18 whatever or earlier. It is truly a place of ghosts.
Channel Nonfiction: Have you been back since, do you have any plans to visit in the future?
Raymond De Felitta: I wanted to do a screening at that bridge group, you know that group that I filmed and we discussed race. And I’m not sure what happened. Again I feel like it may have fallen into the sort of ambivalent response that the film got from the residents. They were a lot more interested in the film before they saw it, if you know what I mean. I feel like there must have been some divisiveness in the group about it. Because you can interpret certain things, like, for instance, the woman at the end, the white lady, who in sense defends the white Citizen Council in my father’s film and she says they were good people and we’re stuck in a certain time. A lot of people have seen the film and said, ‘Oh my god, that woman it’s so horrible what she said.’ And I always think, ‘Well no I like her for saying that, because she’s putting a human face on the whole tragedy.’ Whatever you think of what their attitudes were, they were humans. They grew up a certain way, and had a certain life, and as she said they were doing the best that they could. It’s possible that some of the Southerners who have seen the film thought that I was trying to show them as backwards and I really wasn’t. I felt they were honest … again it’s hard to paint a subtle portrait of the subject. And to me things like that were subtle and interesting. But sometimes people just don’t even want to hear it. They just want to know one simple thing: are you racist or not? And it’s more complicated than that because the truth was everybody was racist. That’s how they grew up. That wonderful old governor William Winter, to me he was so brave because I asked him, ‘You ran as a segregationist,’ and he said, ‘Well we were all segregationists, that’s what we thought everyone wanted. That’s what we thought black people wanted to.’ And he had that great line: ‘We finally realized we were defending the indefensible.’ To me he was really the most articulate purveyor of the fact that the tragedy was a lot of them didn’t know it was wrong. They just grew up knowing how their world worked. And the rest of white America was suddenly descending upon them saying, ‘You better change right now this is not OK.’ And they were naturally defensive.
Channel Nonfiction: (William Winter) is a hero in the state. At least he was when I was in school there.
Raymond De Felitta: He’s spoken of with real reverence. People really admire him a great deal. He’s lovely man, it was a great interview.
Channel Nonfiction: You made a documentary about a documentary. How did you choose what parts of your father’s film to include?
Raymond De Felitta: There were certain parts of the film I used that are very rich and to me really stand alone dramatically like the piece of that Klan rally and the story of the spy who was hidden in the grandstand, and certainly Booker’s story. The film also had sections of it that are slightly more, according to my father, they were more network imposed. There’s a long section about the church that white people have built to help foster community etc. etc. and they are perfectly fine and they are fair but they don’t really tell much of a story. So what I was trying to do, as we honed in on what our story was, was say what did he go down there and get? And what were the things that I think are really of lasting historical value? Certainly the Citizens Council lunch was an obvious get because, again, I don’t think my father felt that that was simply showing villainy, that was just how the town leaders felt. That had to be their position and he was able to get them to be very frank on camera. So you know it was a little bit of hunting and pecking for what still was relevant as opposed to what felt a little more like a p.r. film at the time.
Channel Nonfiction: Right. That makes sense. Your father seems very regretful in the film, truly regretful, about having (NBC) broadcast that interview (with Booker). Has that always been his attitude?
Raymond De Felitta: I think he’s always been ambivalent about it. He always thought it was an amazing piece of film. And I think what he was asking himself is the eternal questions of most documentarians. You know how invasive are you allowed to be with a subject? They do willingly put themselves in your hands, but does that mean necessarily that it’s all for free? Cause it’s not. You’re dealing with people’s lives when you make a documentary. And then, of course, he didn’t know Booker was murdered until we started making the film. So that was another kind of thing for him to digest and it was many years later that he had to. I hope I convinced him and certainly Yvette more than me because you know he got to meet Booker’s granddaughter and saw how much she appreciated what my father did. I hope he got over it. He’s pretty old, so I don’t want him wandering around with a heavy heart because he certainly did have to ask himself the hard question, ‘Do I show this or not?’
Channel Nonfiction: Well, maybe it was the fact that he was freshly dealing with Booker’s murder?
Raymond De Felitta: Yeah, that’s true. I mean I had this problem too. I don’t know if you know my other documentary “’TIS AUTUMN.” I had a similar moral dilemma with that because we were faced with the subject covering up the fact that he had abandoned a son. And we found the son. The subject was dying as we were making the film. And so I was trying to always figure out, ‘Do I tell the truth about this, do I make that part of the film? Is it too bruising and difficult about a man who is ill and who has opened his door to me to film him?’ And at the end of the day my choice was not to bring it up. And it was a hard one, because I kept saying to myself ,’But this is a film and a documentary and this is what you owe to the story, but they are also human beings and they are also people going through life.’ Now I did wind up using it in the film. I used the fact that we did uncover it. So it’s not like I left it out of the movie. But I didn’t address the subject with Jackie, the person the film’s about.
Channel Nonfiction: Interesting. That’s powerful stuff for sure.
Raymond De Felitta: You’re making “ROB THE MOB” right now. We finished it. It’s going to come out in the spring.
Channel Nonfiction: So you’re working on a documentary right now then?
Raymond De Felitta: Well I think so. I worked with the actor Burt Young who most people know as Pauly in the Rocky movies. He was in “ROB THE MOB” and he’s a very fascinating man. And I said to him just recently, ‘I’d love to film some interview with you and see if it goes anywhere.’ And he’s a very private guy with a very interesting and complicated past. And he thought about it for a while and then he said, ‘Come out let’s try it.’ So literally just a few days ago, I went out and shot a long interview with him. Again it’s how these things start for me. Jackie Paris “‘TIS AUTUMN” started the same way. I didn’t know if there was a film there, but a man who I found really interesting opened his door and said, ‘Fine let’s just try interviewing me and see where it goes.’ So am I making a documentary, I’m not sure. But I did film a really interesting interview and it’s, certainly I hope, that might evolve over the next year into something. He’s really an actor’s actor, but he also has this very bizarre life that preceded his acting career. And also he’s a fascinating man. He’s a painter, a writer; he’s got very far beyond ideas, very avant-garde thinking about theater. He’s not a simple guy and I think he’d be a really interesting subject for and portrait.