Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story: Tribeca Review

Booker's Place
Rediscovered historical footage plants the seed for a moving, beautifully crafted Civil Rights doc

Built around a single, long-forgotten scrap of film, Raymond De Felitta's film investigates an unsung hero of the Civil Rights era.

NEW YORK — Building a surprisingly powerful portrait around a single, long-forgotten scrap of film, Raymond De Felitta's Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story combines present-day reporting with archival material to investigate an unsung hero of the Civil Rights era. Beautifully put together in just about every way, it will be potent stuff on the small screen but deserves its moment in theaters.

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De Felitta, maker of modest charmers like Two Family House and City Island, is the son of TV veteran Frank De Felitta, who made docs for NBC News in the 60s. After posting some of his father's work on YouTube in an effort to preserve it, he heard from Yvette Johnson, the granddaughter of one of Frank's subjects; together, the two explored the fascinating story of a black waiter named Booker Wright.

Wright's appearance in the 1966 report Mississippi: A Self Portrait almost didn't happen. The elder De Felitta had intended to depict only the white community of Greenwood, a town known for its hostility toward desegregation. But part of that white society revolved around a restaurant where black waiters recited a vast menu for the amusement of an all-white clientele, and Wright was among the place's most popular waiters.

He also, despite being illiterate, ran his own restaurant on the black side of town. The filmmakers met him there to film a recitation of the menu, and were surprised when Booker continued to talk once he was done -- cheerfully discussing his ways of handling the daily humiliations his job entailed. De Felitta knew this footage would be inflammatory when the program aired in Greenwood; he used it anyway.

That choice had consequences. But before revealing them, Raymond De Felitta greatly expands on his father's work, interviewing blacks and whites who survive from the time of its making (some of whom appear in the 1966 film) and, with the help of Yvette Johnson (who, poignantly, had never fully understood her grandfather's actions before discovering the film online), exploring the state of race relations in Greenwood today.

Crisp black-and-white photography underlines the doc's the-past-remains-with-us themes, and even viewers well versed in Civil Rights lore may marvel at the fresh perspectives it finds. Viewer involvement only deepens in the final third, as our assumptions about where this is all going prove wrong more than once.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, Spotlight
Opens: Friday, April 25 (Tribeca Film)
Production Company: Eyepatch Productions
Director: Raymond De Felitta
Producer: David Zellerford
Executive producers: Steven C. Beer, Lynn Roer
Director of photography: Joe Victorine
Music: David Cieri
Editor: George Gross
No rating, 91 minutes