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Review: Reclaiming history in 'Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story'

Director Raymond De Felitta picks up where his documentarian father left off in telling the tale of African American waiter Booker Wright and his quiet rebellion.

April 25, 2012|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • “Booker's Place” revisits a Mississippi town and its painful history.
“Booker's Place” revisits a Mississippi town and its… (Tribeca Film Festival,…)

A powerful, personal portrait of history's unfolding and its effect on the future, the documentary "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" is in equal measure a look at two families, the ongoing legacy of America's recent past and an essay on one man's moment of transformative courage. Director Raymond De Felitta (his last fiction feature was"City Island") does a noteworthy job of allowing those separate topics to feel distinct and give each equal consideration.

In 1965, De Felitta's father Frank traveled to Greenwood, Miss., to make a documentary for NBC News. There he found Booker Wright, an African American waiter in a white-owned restaurant who also ran his own cafe on the other side of the tracks and who put on his white jacket and bow tie to run through for the camera the unwritten menu he delivered to white customers night after night. Then he continued, talking truthfully about the everyday indignities he put up with, saying, "The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you're crying on the inside."

After the broadcast, Wright lost his job, had his own place trashed and was put in the hospital at the hands of a local cop before being murdered under mysterious circumstances some years later. Wright's granddaughter Yvette Johnson joins with the younger De Felitta to return to Greenwood to speak to those still alive from those times and get a truer sense of the quiet rebellion of Wright's simple act of honesty. The film, which plays like "The Help" minus the safety net of nostalgia, provides a powerful reminder that as we all carry history with us, it is still possible for each of us to change it.

As Wright himself said during that fateful interview, "That's what I'm struggling for."

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