'Booker's Place' filmmaker builds on dad's work

Yvette Johnson with her father, Leroy Jones. (Nicki

Yvette Johnson with her father, Leroy Jones. (Nicki Newburger) (Credit: Yvette Johnson with her father, Leroy Jones. (Nicki Newburger))

"In one person, in one interview, in one place, you had personified what it was black Mississippi was saying to white Mississippi after all these years," the journalist Hodding Carter III says of the moment waiter Booker Wright stood before NBC News cameras in 1965 and passionately decried the dehumanizing experience of being black in the racist South.

Carter's speaking to filmmaker Raymond De Felitta in the powerful documentary "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story," which is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, available on demand and opening theatrically at the Quad Cinema on Friday.

"The meaner the man be, the more you smile ... I don't want my children to have to go through what I go through with," Wright said in 1965 to documentarian Frank De Felitta, Raymond's father. In "Booker's Place," a personal look back at that seminal moment, the younger De Felitta and Wright's granddaughter Yvette Johnson return to Wright's hometown of Greenwood, Miss., to explore its still-resonant ramifications.

Here, De Felitta ("City Island") shares his thoughts on his film and Wright's legacy.

Beyond the popularity of your father's film on YouTube, what other factors convinced you that the time was right for "Booker's Place"? There was just serendipity evident from the beginning that I couldn't ignore. That Yvette Johnson found the movie and was looking for it as I was posting it, it was as if Booker from beyond urged me and her onward and put us together. I had no intentions of making a "race" documentary, but Booker's story as a microcosm of what life in the South was like for black men and what it meant to take the bold step of asserting your human and civil rights seemed to me to be a fresh way to view the events of the '50s and '60s.

How has Booker resonated with you in your own life? Booker is, in essence, an artist. He takes a major step that others have thought of taking but don't. He did it in cunning, completely planned and beautifully performed speech. In a sense, he even got reviews and knew that he would have to suffer through them.

Are we getting closer to the better future Booker spoke about? In some ways ... not enough has changed. But then again, blacks in the South used to live in a terrorist state, ruled by cops and white citizens with the authority to do whatever they wanted. That's gone. And so is segregation. Those are two pretty major changes.

If you go: "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" plays at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight at 8:30, Clearview Cinemas Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St. It's on demand Thursday and opens at the Quad Cinema on Friday.

This story has been updated since its original publication. 

Tags: Entertainment , Booker , Robert Levin

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