Booker’s Place Documentary

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Yvette Johnson is a Phoenix resident whose grandfather, Booker Wright, appeared in a 1966 NBC documentary speaking boldly and honestly about his experience with racism in the southern United States. What he said while the cameras were rolling changed his life forever. His story is featured in the new documentary “Booker’s Place”. Learn more about the film from Johnson, a co-producer, and Raymond De Felitta, the director.

Ted Simons: For the next year ASU's project humanities is exploring the question are we losing our humanity. The program begins tomorrow with the Arizona premier of the documentary Booker's place, a Mississippi story. In a moment we'll hear from both the director of the film and co-producer, Yvette Johnson, a Phoenix woman whose grandfather, Booker Wright, is the subject of the documentary.

Yvette Johnson: I am visiting Greenwood for information about my grandfather. His name was Booker Wright and he owned a cafe that was also a club called Booker's place over on Mc Lauren Street.

Video speaker: Booker place was a very powerful place, place that BB king would go up until 4:00 the next morning.

Yvette Johnson: 1966 he went on national news program in D.C.and he talked about what it was like to be a black man in Greenwood.

Raymond De Felitta: This was a film my father made in 1966. He's 90 years old this summer. He never really knew what impact this movie had, but a few weeks ago, I put this movie on the internet, and all of a sudden we started hearing that this was something that people had been looking for for years. From one of the people that got in touch with us was Booker Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson.

Yvette Johnson: I have this inkling pride to be related to somebody like him.

Video speaker: I understand he was also martyred.

Video Speaker: I had a talk with Booker. I said, you sure you want to do this? This picture is going to play all over the south. They are going to watch you in a sense ridicule them as being fools. The time has come. I got to talk the way I feel.

Video Speaker: When I saw it, I thought to myself, you're a dead man. They are going to kill you. Then I thought, he knows that. He understands exactly what he's saying.

Video Speaker: One of the policemen met Booker and just beat the hell out of him with a pistol.
Video Speaker: They destroyed his store. They came and practically bombed it. No one pretended justice was meted out on an equal basis between whites and blacks.
I knew there was going to be a killing.
I recall passing by him with a shotgun on the way to kill your grandfather.
I think that I should have just not used it. I really do.

Ted Simons: And joining me now to talk about Booker's place, a Mississippi story is co-producer Yvette Johnson and director Raymond De Felitta. Thank you for being year. Good to have you both here. Yvette, what did you know about your grandfather before all of this happened and who is your grandfather to you now?

Yvette Johnson: I knew very little about him. When I was growing up I knew that he owned a cafe and that he was murdered. During a course at ASU I learned that he said some provocative things in a news program but I didn't have access to the news program. A little over a year ago when Raymond and I connected I finally got to see the program and hear the words for myself. So initially he was just sort of this person in my family who I didn't know much about. Now he's a hero to me.

Ted Simons: When you first thought the first time you saw that particular footage, what did you think?

Yvette Johnson: I had mixed feelings. I felt so proud of him because what he said was so composed and eloquent and thoughtful, but also so insightful about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of racism. But I also felt very sad for him and I found myself wanting to reach back in time and embrace him because he really had a hard life.

Ted Simons: Yes. Indeed. Raymond, your father was involved with that particular film footage, correct? Talk to us about that connection and then your connection with Yvette.

Raymond De Felitta: My father Frank De Felitta was a producer at NBC news. He made a documentary called Mississippi, a self-portrait, which was supposed to be a look at the civil rights struggle from a white point of view in Mississippi. While there he met a waiter, Booker Wright. He heard the waiter deliver this sing song menu in the white's only restaurant he worked in. My father thought it was fascinating and appalling, almost a Samo act that Booker had to do. My father asked if he would be interested in being in the documentary demonstrating what he did. Booker said yes, I'll do it. When they went to film it Booker started doing his routine, but then when he was done he went on. My father wasn't quite prepared for this, but he kept the cameras rolling and Booker delivered the speech, about a minute and a half, an incendiary, heartbreaking and fabulous speech about who he is and how he feels.

Ted Simons: We have excerpts of that speech. Let's go ahead and take a look at this now again. This is Booker Right from that NBC special back in the 1960s.

Booker Wright: Some people nice. Some is not. Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me N-- all that hurts but you have to smile. If you don't, what's wrong with you? Why you not smiling? You have to smile. Don't talk to Booker like that. His name is Booker. I got more people come in real nice, how you do, waiter? What's your name? I think if I'm so good and I keep that smile, always learn to smile. The meaner the man be the more you smile. I'm trying to make a living. Why? I got three children. I want them to get an education. I want to force them to get an education. They are doing good. Night after night I lay down and dream about what I had to go through. I don't want my children to have to go through it. I want them to be able to get the job they feel qualified. That's what I'm struggling for.

Ted Simons: Indeed as one of his grandchildren, you did not have to go through all that stuff. When you see that, does it feel like a different world?

Yvette Johnson: It does. It when I first heard about these comments that he had made I really wanted to understand why they were so provocative. I wanted to understand what Greenwood was like back then. It's like a different world. It was almost a terrorist state. You couldn't call the police if you were black. If you said something or tried to report something you could lose your job. You could be beaten and there would be no repercussions for the person that harmed you. I grew up in San Diego, California, with every opportunity available to me.

Ted Simons: Just absolutely -- to find -- how did you actually track this down? How did you discover that not only it exists but I can get hold of it?

Yvette Johnson: I first heard about the film from a professor at old miss. I was Googling the name Booker Wright, Booker's place and several pages down this document came up that mentioned him on the fly. He wasn't the focus of the document. I called old miss and spoke with this professor. He sounded so excited. He kept saying you're Booker Wright's granddaughter? I kept thinking he had the wrong Booker Wright. Eventually I realized we were talking about the same person. He hadn't seen the footage either but had heard about it and interviewed the people who had seen it. I actually created a blog space to keep track of my research and what I was learning about black history and civil rights. So Raymond actually our blogs bumped into one another.

Raymond De Felitta: None of this could have happened without the internet. I posted my father's film on YouTube because his films are not commercially available. So I thought let me just get them out there. I think they are wonderful time capsules of their period. Of course Mississippi self-portrait is one of them. Booker is on the internet, Yvette is on the internet and there we were.

Ted Simons: There you were, but you wound up making a documentary. How did that happen? How was the next step taken?

Raymond De Felitta: My producing partner saw the synergy happening. We had made another documentary together a few years ago and he said, there's too much going on here. Your father's work. She's researching the grandfather. Booker is connecting all of you. Let's get into this. Before we knew it, this is when movies get made they suddenly get made quickly. We were going to Greenwood, let's jump in, start meeting people and start finding out what happened to Booker.

Ted Simons: When you started the film, from your angle what did you want to happen? What did you want -- did you wind up getting what you wanted?

Yvette Johnson: What I wanted was probably a little unrealistic. I wanted to be able to truly know my grandfather. I wanted to take everyone's memories and be able to piece them together and reconstruct him and feel somehow like I was in relationship with him. And I realized when we had been in Greenwood five or six days and people kept telling us the same kinds of things about his personality I realized he was a very private man. Because he died the year before I was born I would never get to know him but that at least I could honor him.

Ted Simons: Tell us how he died. That's part of the story.

Yvette Johnson: Sure. He was after this film aired he was pistol-whipped by a white police officer and he continued over the years to experience harassment from this police officer. About seven years after the film aired he was murdered. We know who shot him. We know who pulled the trigger, but there really was no motive. So there are lots of different theories in Greenwood. People have lots of questions about why it happened. He was quite young.

Ted Simons: Fascinating story. You've made films, all kinds of films, and how did this film differ from what you usually do? Feature films would seem to be very different in kind of documentary.

Raymond De Felitta: With a feature film writing the screenplay is the most important element to me. I write my own movies, but with a documentary you're writing as you're shooting and you don't quite know where you're going and We rattled a lot of cages doing this. We saw some ghosts come back to life. That's how you find the movie within the documentary subject. So as we were doing it we started to find out, for instance, about the police officer who harassed and beat Booker, and we said, well, this actually starts to tell us a little bit about the murkiness of his murder. Was there actually some sort of cover-up going on in fact I think there was. It's clear to me there is. That's when you realize there's your movie, but you're not doing it as a writer but as the film maker in action.

Ted Simons: It puts constraints on you as a filmmaker but maybe you can get even more creative within those constraints.

Raymond De Felitta: It makes it an adventure up like anything else. You're doing detective work and making a movie.

Ted Simons: Your father is still alive?

Raymond De Felitta: Yes, and he's in the movie. He's thrilled that we did it. He feels we brought closure to something that always troubled him, should he have used the speech in the movie or not.

Ted Simons: What are his thoughts on that?

Raymond De Felitta: For many years he felt it's a quandary documentary filmmakers have. It frequently is not going to help the life of the subject whose footage it is. He always felt that maybe Booker didn't understand really how many people were going to see this film and the impact airing nationally on NBC would have on his life. But ultimately I think that he's come to have a different point of view of it now. Meeting Yvette has given him that closure that he did the right thing.

Ted Simons: Your family. What does your family think about this documentary? What does your family think now about your grandfather?

Yvette Johnson: Everyone is thrilled. He was always a special man, bigger than life, but he didn't actually tell many people what he had done on the news that day. A lot of people in my family didn't know. It was amazing, sort of brought us together. I think the biggest thing it's given us a way to address civil rights and the history of blacks in America in a way that's very personal to our family but really infused with pride.

Ted Simons: Interesting. What do you think the legacy of your grandfather is?

Yvette Johnson: I think the biggest take-away is actually two. One just the power of the individual man. He was a waiter but he had such impact by just being brave when the time came. But the other thing I think, this is why I love that this is part of project humanities, is that race talking about race at that time just like now was very heated, very volatile. A lot of hitting below the belt. But what my grandfather did was he removed sort of the rhetoric and the anger and the hatred. He said, this is just what it feels like. He reminded people that behind this volatile issue there are individuals, and that we have sort of a shared humanity. We have things in common even when we disagree.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on a tremendous project both of you. Continued success. Good luck with this. You're still involved with your grandfather's story.

Yvette Johnson: Yes.

Ted Simons: Good luck with that as well.

Yvette Johnson:Co-Producer, "Brooker's Place"; Raymond De Felitta:Director, "Brooker's Place";

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