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Monday, April 30, 2012 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Ahead of May Day, David Harvey Details Urban Uprisings...
2012-04-30

"Booker’s Place": Documentary Tells Story of Black Mississippi Waiter Who Lost Life by Speaking Out

Guests

Raymond De Felitta, director of a new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.

Yvette Johnson, co-producer of a new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. She is one of Booker Wright’s four grandchildren.

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In 1965, Booker Wright, an African-American waiter in Greenwood, Mississippi, dared to be interviewed by NBC about racism in America, a decision that forever changed his and his family’s lives. Wright said during the interview, "I always learned to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile. Do all your crying on the inside." He would later lose his job, be beaten by police, and ultimately be murdered. Wright’s story is told in the new documentary film, "Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story," a collaboration between our two guests: co-producer Yvette Johnson, Wright’s grand-daughter, and director Raymond De Felitta, whose father, Frank De Felitta, originally filmed the interview with Wright and later said he regretted it. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the 20th [anniversary of] one of the largest uprisings in modern U.S. history, sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers in Los Angeles who were videotaped beating an African-American man, Rodney King. On April 29th, 1992, an all-white jury acquitted the four officers, this despite an explicit video recording of them violently kicking, hitting, bludgeoning King as he lay on the ground. When the video was broadcast on television, a grand jury indicted all four officers on a number of charges. But after the judge moved the trial to the largely white enclave of Simi Valley, the jury acquitted the officers of all charges.

An hour and 15 minutes later, people took to the streets enraged, and the Los Angeles rebellion began. The furious reaction spread to cities across the country. In Los Angeles, 55 people were killed, more than 2,300 were injured, more than 1,100 buildings were damaged or destroyed. President Bush Sr. called in over 13,000 National Guard and federal officers, blaming the so-called "L.A riots" on the social welfare programs of the ’60s and ’70s. However, two men in South Central Los Angeles told Ted Koppel they were tired of being mistreated by the police.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: This opportunity is to get at these police, you know what I’m saying? Because they’ve been killing us, stomping us, slapping us for years, you know? But it never comes out. And everyone knows they’ve been doing it since the beginning of time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: And when we get them on tape, they get found "not guilty" in a system that doesn’t count for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Community leaders in Los Angeles said it wasn’t simply the acquittal of the white officers that sparked the uprising; it was a spontaneous combustion fueled by institutionalized racism in the city, escalating unemployment and deepening poverty. Most of the 10,000 people arrested during the uprising were Latino and African-American young men.

Well, 20 years later, questions of police bias and racial profiling remain, especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Today, we’re going to go back even further in time to look at racism in America through the lens of one family’s epic struggle. It’s the subject of a new film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s called Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. The film features an African-American waiter named Booker Wright who in 1965 agreed to speak on camera to NBC filmmaker Frank De Felitta about the subject of racism in America. Booker dared to openly and honestly share the realities he faced living in a racist society.

BOOKER WRIGHT: Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me [blank]. All that hate, but you have to smile. If you don’t, "What’s wrong with you? Why are you not smiling? Get over there and get me so and so and so and so!" There are some nice people: "Don’t talk to Booker like that. His name is Booker." Then I got some more people come in, real nice: "How you do, waiter? What’s your name?" Then I take care of some so good, and I keep that smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile—although you’re crying on the inside.

AMY GOODMAN: This brief interview, which aired on NBC at the height of the civil rights movement, forever changed the lives of Booker Wright and his family. Customers shunned Wright, forcing him to quit. This was followed by a severe pistol whipping and the firebombing of Booker’s Place. Now, more than 40 years later, Frank’s son, Raymond De Felitta, returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of his father’s fateful filming that day.

We’re joined by Raymond De Felitta, the director of Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. And from Phoenix, Arizona, we’re joined by Yvette Johnson, co-producer and one of Booker Wright’s four grandchildren.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Raymond De Felitta. It’s a remarkable film.

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what your father did in 1965, what he was doing at NBC, and how he met Booker.

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: My father was a documentary filmmaker. He had his own unit at NBC and could pretty much pick whatever subject he wanted to do. He read an article that was in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Hodding Carter, and the article stimulated him. It was an article about the unfair situations going on and the lack of justice in Mississippi for blacks. So he pitched NBC and said, "I want to go down there. I want to see what’s going on in the South, and I want to make a film about it." The idea evolved, though, into something that they hadn’t really begun thinking of, which was: what’s the white Southerners perspective on what’s changing and the tragedy of the civil rights movement? So he went down not necessarily expecting to get something like Booker’s speech.

While he was dining at Lusco’s restaurant, which is still there, he met Booker, who was a waiter. And Booker sang the menu, and this was a gimmick at Lusco’s. There were no actually printed menus, which was a way of discouraging black patrons from showing up. But the kind of minstrelsy of Booker’s delivery kind of charmed my father. He thought it was very odd, because that sort of thing was no longer happening in the rest of the country, and he decided to film Booker. He wasn’t sure how to use that menu, but he—the recital of the menu, but he thought it might be an interesting thing to demonstrate the differences between the South and the way they—what they expected from black people working there. But when he filmed him, Booker didn’t stop with reading the menu. He kept going, and he told him—and it was not prepared and was not something my father expected, but he told him what was going on, really, in his heart.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of your father—

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: —that’s in your film, Booker’s Place. This is Frank De Felitta, the producer and director of the 1966 documentary, Mississippi: A Self-Portrait. How old is he now, your father?

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: My father is 90 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: Ninety years old. In this clip, he explains warning Booker Wright about the likely storm his words would cause.

FRANK DE FELITTA: Then I had a talk with Booker, and I said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I said, "Do you know what’s going to happen? First of all, this picture is going to play all over the South, Mississippi included. And there people are going to watch it, and they’re going to watch you, in a sense, ridicule them as being fools, not knowing how you hurt inside." And he says, "I understand it. I thank you." He says, "But no." He says, "The time has come. Don’t you understand? The time has come."

AMY GOODMAN: That is Frank De Felitta. And I want to go to another clip of him from the film, Booker’s Place, that—he is the documentary maker of Mississippi: A Self-Portrait. In this clip, he explains what happened to Booker Wright after the piece aired.

FRANK DE FELITTA: They destroyed his store. They came and practically bombed it. They set it aflame. And they put him in the hospital. And he was there, seriously injured. And I said I wanted to go see him. And he said, "Tell him, stay away from me. I don’t want to see him."

AMY GOODMAN: Frank De Felitta went on to say he regretted including the clip of Booker Wright in his documentary.

FRANK DE FELITTA: People change when they see misery and they see things happen that are terrible. They’re suddenly looking for someone to blame. And they blamed me. And I deserve it. Listen, I think that I should have just not used it. I really do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Frank De Felitta, who did the 1966 documentary about Greenwood, Mississippi, and broadcast the film of Booker Wright. Raymond De Felitta, his son, has now made a new documentary, quite remarkable, called Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. Your father regrets that he ran this film.

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Well, I think he’s ambivalent, and "ambivalent," as we know, means strong feelings in two opposing directions. You know, certainly Booker is very much the centerpiece of his film, and he didn’t—you know, the speech is so searing still that you can’t deny that that’s what makes the film still powerful. On the other hand, the fallout for Booker was so extreme, and that’s something that my father does feel responsible for.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Yvette Johnson in to this discussion. What’s also fascinating about this film, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, is that it brings together the filmmaker’s son from 1966, Frank De Felitta’s son Raymond, who’s the director of this film, and Yvette Johnson, who is the granddaughter of Booker Wright. Yvette Johnson, talk about how you and Raymond came to meet each other and what happened to your grandfather in Greenwood and how you discovered this.

YVETTE JOHNSON: Well, in about—it was about 2007 when I first learned that my grandfather appeared on the news. And originally, the way the story was told to me, I thought that it was sort of a "man on the street" interview, that he was walking down the street and that maybe someone from the 5:00 news put a mic in his face and that he just said something sort of provocative and then went on his way. It wasn’t until I connected with Raymond that I actually got to see the film for myself and realized that what he said was so composed and thoughtful.

But when I started this research in 2007, I created a blog, and I would just collect information there that I was learning about my grandfather. And Raymond started putting his father’s documentaries on YouTube and on his own blog. And his producing partner, David Zellerford, read Raymond’s blog post, the one that contained my grandfather’s statements, and really, I mean, you know, you’ve seen the film, Amy, it’s just—it’s difficult, I think, for anyone from any walk of life to watch and to listen to my grandfather’s statements without having sort of an emotional response. I mean, he was so eloquent and so raw and so honest. And David just couldn’t stop watching it. And so, he and Raymond spent some time thinking about what they could do with the footage, and they decided that they wanted to find my grandfather’s family, because, you know, one of the things that he said in his monologue was that he endured the humiliation that he did every day so that his children could have a better life. And so, Raymond and David wanted to find out if that hope came true for him. So they found my blog, and the three of us met.

And it turned out that I had half of the story that they didn’t have. They didn’t know that he had been murdered. They also didn’t know about just some of the things that happened in his childhood that sort of made his story even more heartbreaking, honestly, and more compelling. And then they had the story of the film and that piece of his life. So we came together and decided that we wanted to learn more about him, more about Greenwood. And so, the three of us traveled to Greenwood to sort of uncover the story of my grandfather. And so, it has been in this last year that I learned that he was beaten, beaten by a white police officer, and that he was continually harassed by white police officers, potentially the same white police officer. And also—you know, I knew, growing up, that he had been murdered, but I had no idea that he had been in this film. So now there are questions, as well, about whether or not this film played a part in his murder, so...

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, Yvette Johnson, how your grandfather, how Booker Wright, was murdered.

YVETTE JOHNSON: Well, here’s what’s interesting. He was murdered by this kid who came into his club and was messing with some customers there, and my grandfather kicked him out. And the kid’s name was Blackie. Blackie came back about 15 minutes later and shot my grandfather. So this was the story that I actually heard first in 2007, and it sounded completely plausible to me. And last spring, I requested the transcripts of the murder trial. And the more that I read through them—I read through them over and over and over again, and I just felt as though something wasn’t right. He—his attorneys didn’t call any witnesses. He wasn’t Mirandized, yet he basically confessed to the crime, and that was admissible in his trial. And there were just some other things. His attorneys billed their hours and, I think, only spent, you know, 20 or 30 hours on the entire case. And so, I went to Greenwood with these questions about the murder, but I really wasn’t sure, you know, if—they were just sort of suspicions. And then, after being there for a few days, people began—people, Greenwood residents, who have lived there their whole lives, began to express to us that there were some different theories about his murder, one being that a white police officer encouraged Blackie to murder my grandfather.

And I should say, too, the other thing that we learned when we were there was that my grandfather’s restaurant was the nicest place for blacks to come, but because of the situation with the all-white police force and just sort of some inherent racism within the police force, you really couldn’t call the police if you were a black business owner. You had to handle things on your own. So in order to keep Booker’s Place, you know, a nice, safe place to come, Booker was his own bouncer. And it was known. I mean, we met so many people who were black during the time—you know, who are black, who frequented Booker’s Place in the '50s and ’60s, who told us that, you know, it was known that if you went in there and you didn't have money and you just went in there to mess around, he was going to kick you out. It was known. It was common knowledge. So the idea that Blackie would go in, mess around and get kicked out and be surprised by that is also—it’s questionable to me. It doesn’t really ring true.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about your father’s early years, that remarkable story of him feeling abandoned. Talk about who Booker Wright was, how he came to own the store, how he came to feel abandoned.

YVETTE JOHNSON: Sure. Well, you know, my grandfather grew up with Mr. and Mrs. Wright. That’s who raised him. He didn’t have any other siblings. And he always grew up knowing that they weren’t his parents. They made no secret of that. And what they told him when he was a child is that he was left on a doorstep, but that they were willing to raise him. So they really raised him with the sense of separation. And he was very young when they got him, and they easily could have, you know, let him believe that they were his parents, but they always let him know that he was not theirs and sort of that they were doing him a favor. And he wasn’t able to go to school. He lived on a plantation, which was common. It was common for black boys living on plantations to not be allowed to go to school, because they had to work the fields. And he just—he sort of had a hard life and always felt sort of, you know, without parents, without that connection, without that sense of family.

And, you know, some of the details about how he got separated from his family are a little bit murky. But what I know for sure is that by the time that he was 13 or 14, he was living on his own. And he got a job working at Lusco’s, probably initially as a busboy, and eventually became their most dearly loved waiter. He was—you know, I mean, if you go to Greenwood now and you meet someone of a certain age who went to Lusco’s, they always, always remember him. He was great with children. He remembered all the orders. He was just—he was just—he very charismatic.

AMY GOODMAN: But he was—

YVETTE JOHNSON: And people loved having him serve them.

AMY GOODMAN: But he was forced out after the film appeared on NBC?

YVETTE JOHNSON: Correct, yes. Yeah, he worked there for 25 years. And the film aired, and he went to work, and all of the regular customers refused to allow Booker to wait on them. And customers even called the restaurant and said, "We don’t want him there anymore."

AMY GOODMAN: Raymond, after your father learned that Booker was murdered, and ultimately your father met Yvette, Booker’s granddaughter, what was that like for him?

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Well, he was shocked. I mean, he has carried a certain amount of guilt over the years about even using the piece of footage in his film. And I think that meeting Yvette probably has really helped him over a very serious, you know, moment in his life, because really what Yvette was able to express to my father is, had you not used the film, had you done that, you would have censored Booker, which is what everybody had done to Booker his whole life. So, I think, again, my father’s ambivalence has always been, as a filmmaker, this really worked, this really made the film special, but as a human being, did I change his life really for the worse? Ultimately, Booker, though, became heroic in Greenwood and, you know, in a small way, did a very big thing. And everyone there still remembers the night he was on the news as a major, major turning point.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll end once again where we started, with the clip of Booker Wright speaking in his own words.

BOOKER WRIGHT: Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me [blank]. All that hate, but you have to smile. If you don’t, "What’s wrong with you? Why are you not smiling? Get over there and get me so and so and so and so!" There are some nice people: "Don’t talk to Booker like that. His name is Booker." Then I got some more people come in, real nice: "How you do, waiter? What’s your name?" Then I take care of some so good, and I keep that smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile—although you’re crying on the inside.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Booker Wright. Finally, Yvette Johnson, you met privately with Frank De Felitta. Raymond left the room, and everyone else, so that you could talk to him. What did you tell him about this videotape that he did air in 1966?

YVETTE JOHNSON: Well, you know, Frank is a remarkable man, and he’s a very brave man. And I really wanted to understand why he went to Greenwood in the first place, and—but, you know, when the two of us were alone, I just—I thanked him. I mean, it was clear from the way that he talked about my grandfather that he thought highly of him, that he respected him, and that he enjoyed my grandfather’s company. And from what I understand of race relations in Greenwood at that time, even just having a white man treat him, treat my grandfather with that level of respect, I think, was uncommon. And so, you know, I thanked him for his kindness towards my grandfather and for giving him a voice in a time and in a place when he didn’t have a voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Yvette Johnson, I want to thank you for being with us. You’re writing a book about your grandfather, Booker Wright.

YVETTE JOHNSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But you also co-produced the film, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. It was directed by Raymond De Felitta, and it just premiered here in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. We thank you very much, both, for being with us.

RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, people are gearing up for May Day all over the country. A number of people are calling for a general strike. We’ll speak with David Harvey. He’s written the book, Rebel Cities. Stay with us.

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