The tagline for “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” is a foreboding one foretelling the tragic nature of the documentary, even without the faded KKK photograph on the DVD’s cover.
UAA is currently celebrating Black History Month and is hosting events such as the “Our Stories” panel, the “Soul Food Junkies” film showing and others. One event, the documentary screening of “Booker’s Place,” is more in-depth than the others.
“This is really different than anything the Multicultural Center has ever done,” Michael McCormick, assistant director of Student Activities, said.
The documentary tells the story of Booker Wright, an African-American waiter and club owner in Greenwood, Miss., in 1965. Wright was interviewed for a documentary exploring the treatment of African-Americans in the south, and despite knowing there would be repercussions, he was completely honest and candid in the interview.
“When you see the footage, it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, this man was so courageous,’” Elijah Andre Thorn, UAA Multicultural Center director and Black Student Union adviser, said. “He was so courageous to speak his given mind at that point in time.”
After the documentary aired, Wright was fired from his job as a waiter, beaten by white police officers and eventually murdered in the club he owned. The club was called Booker’s Place.
The documentary is directed by Raymond De Felitta, the son of Frank De Felitta, the director whose documentary on NBC News featured Wright in 1966. Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson co-produced the documentary and will visit UAA as part of the screening event.
Johnson explained how she came to be part of the project in an April 2012 interview with Democracy Now.
She was researching her grandfather for a project and posted her findings in a blog. Raymond De Felitta had posted the interview his father did with Wright on YouTube and in a blog of his own. When he and his producing partner, David Zellerford, decided to do a follow up story on Wright, they found Johnson’s blog, not knowing Wright had been murdered.
“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,” Johnson said in the Democracy Now interview.
Johnson, De Felitta and Zellerford then made the decision to travel back to Greenwood and make a new documentary encompassing the aftermath of the initial interview between De Felitta’s father and Johnson’s grandfather. “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” was the end result.
Thorn said the event is a collaboration between several university groups in addition to the Multicultural Center, Black Student Union and Student Activities. It was set in motion at a planning meeting for Black History Month.
“We were approached by a professor at UAA, who had this incredible idea … she forwarded information to us about this amazing video that had been nominated for all these awards and whatnot,” Thorn said. “She said that she was personal friends with the granddaughter of the principle person in this movie, this documentary. She presented this information to us and we were like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to make this happen at UAA.’”
Kilic, assistant sociology professor, met Johnson when she lived in Arizona. The two were in a running group and book club together.
“When we ran, she would talk to me about this class that she was taking … that the project required that she research her family history and that she was finding some fascinating stuff,” she said. “So, we talked about it, and I thought it was fascinating, but I honestly didn’t know. When we moved away in 2008, I didn’t know the whole connection.”
Kilic said she is impressed with everything Johnson has done since she last saw her, and she is excited for the UAA event.
“It is truly amazing,” Kilic said. “I didn’t know that this little attempt could turn into something of such a big consequence.”
“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” is showing in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Johnson will also give a free public lecture from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at the UAA Campus Bookstore.