In 1966, a black waiter in a whites-only Mississippi restaurant shared his heartbreak with the nation.
He may or may not have been murdered for it.
His name was Booker Wright, and he’s given voice in Raymond De Felitta’s moving documentary “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.”
De Felitta’s film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles and New York this week, is the culmination of an intriguing family saga.
The director’s father, also a filmmaker, gave Wright his first, fateful moment in the national spotlight.
Frank De Felitta, now 90, worked for NBC in the 1960s when he directed a documentary called “Mississippi: A Self Portrait.”
In that 1966 film, he interviewed residents of Greenwood, a town notorious for its many lynchings.
One of those interviewed was Wright. Dressed in a waiter’s white jacket and black bow-tie, Wright jovially recited a steak-house menu that the restaurant’s owners refused to commit to writing -- a tactic that allowed cashiers to ring up exorbitant prices for black customers who dared enter.
When Wright finished his recitation, he dropped the act. On camera, he spoke of the epithets and debasement he endured in order to build a better life for his children.
“You have to smile,” he said. “The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you’re crying on the inside.”
Reaction was swift. Wright lost his job at the steak house. His own restaurant (called Booker’s Place, it catered to black patrons) was nearly destroyed by arson, and he was brutally pistol-whipped by a policeman.
Wright was shot to death in 1973, following an altercation with a black customer outside Booker’s Place. The new documentary suggests the killer might have been recruited by local authorities, though the speculation is thin and the least effective portion of the film.
De Felitta is more successful in piecing together the sad details of Wright’s difficult life.
He interviews, among others, Wright’s family (granddaughter Yvette Johnson is a co-producer of the film) and his own father (who has long regretted including Wright’s comments in the 1966 film).
“Booker’s Place,” from Tribeca Film, opens today in Los Angeles and Friday in New York. Rating: ***1/2
The Texas school board member who recently played an important role in determining the nation’s textbook standards is no dinosaur-denier.
In fact, he’s sure they existed -- on Noah’s Ark.
Scott Thurman’s culture-war documentary “The Revisionaries” is a revealing look at how politics has infiltrated education.
The film chronicles the Texas State Board of Education’s 2009-2010 hearings to determine science and social studies curricula.
Representing a huge market for textbooks, the Texas board is crucial to publishers who supply the nation’s classrooms. The board members are locally-elected officials, with or without academic training.
“Somebody’s got to stand up to experts,” says Don McLeroy, the affable, arrogant Young-Earth Creationist who emerges as the documentary’s central figure. He’s as pleasant as he is enraging.
“The Revisionaries” was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rating: ***
A young girl is forced to shoot her own parents in the opening moments of “War Witch,” Canadian director Kim Nguyen’s harrowing drama of child soldiers in Africa.
Even without being excessively graphic, the horrors that unfold in this lyrical film might be unbearable without the lovely, understated performance of newcomer Rachel Mwanza.
As a 12-year-old village girl kidnapped by rebels and forced into brutality, Mwanza guides the audience through a nightmare beyond most comprehension.
“War Witch” was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on Broadway and Ryan Sutton on restaurants.