In the Search for the Story of her Grandfather’s Murder, ASU Student Finds Universal Truths
Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 26, 2012 13:07
Everyone has a story. At times we are the protagonist, the catalyst, a supporting role but ultimately we’re the author.
This chapter begins with a research project at Arizona State University. Yvette Johnson wanted to learn more about her grandfather, Booker Wright, so she started a blog as a research platform.
Wright was the owner of Booker’s Place, a restaurant in 1960s, segregated Greenwood, Mississippi. All the racial tension, ignorance and drastic need for change that led to the Civil Rights movement found permanent residence within Greenwood city limits, on both sides of the tracks.
Wright appeared in a documentary, “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” by Frank De Felitta, speaking candidly, from first-hand experience of the mistreatment of Blacks and divisive segregation of Greenwood. When it was broadcast on NBC, folks all over the country listened to what he had to say, but it came with a price. He was later beaten, arrested, his restaurant shutdown and eventually he was murdered.
Forty-six years later, at the end of De Felitta’s career, his son Raymond uploaded “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” to the internet, which led to a connection with Wright’s granddaughter. Armed with cameras, and a passion to find out more about Wright, De Felitta and Johnson set out for Greenwood. The subsequent interviews, photographs, video footage, emotions, stories, memories and confessions became, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.” The documentary was the toast of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Back in Arizona and far from clicking “post” for the first time on her blog, Johnson shared her journey with College Times.
College Times: The Booker Wright project began as an assignment for your Family History Writing class. When you began working on it, did you ever think it would have grown into a documentary that has such a profound impact on so many people?
Yvette Johnson:One of the weird things about this whole experience is that it feels bigger than me, and it’s always kind of felt that way. Even the way I learned about my grandfather’s appearance on the news [in the documentary] in ’66, was kind of dramatic, and intense. So, I’ve always felt a burden to bring his story to the masses. I can remember telling someone five years ago that I wanted everyone in the world to hear his story. It seemed crazy, but I really sort-of felt tasked to do it. So, in a way it feels shocking but also fitting.
When did you first hear your grandfather’s story?
I first learned about his appearance in “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” during a conversation with a professor at Ole Miss University. Really, my aunt and I were talking about my grandfather and she mentioned that he owned a restaurant. I Googled “Booker’s Place,” [and] I found his name mentioned once or twice in a 100-page oral history document. So, I contacted the office that created that document and they said, “Oh my gosh! This is Booker Wright’s granddaughter? We didn’t even know he had kids.” They were so excited. It was clear that they felt as though he had a huge impact on this small town, and really the nation, with his comments.
How did you and Raymond De Felitta [documentary filmmaker] connect?
Frank De Felitta produced the original documentary that my grandfather appeared in, in ’66. He later went on to be this huge blockbuster, Hollywood director. He made horror flicks that made tons of money. His son Raymond became a filmmaker as well. Frank turned 90 last summer and as he was approaching his 90th birthday, he sort of kept saying, “What have I done with my life? I’ve made these scary movies, I wrote these novels, I made lots of money, but I didn’t change the world.” Well, before he became a Hollywood filmmaker, he made these documentaries. So to honor his father, Raymond began putting these docs up on YouTube and posting them on his own blog. Raymond has a producing partner named David Zellerford, and David reads Raymond’s blog and he watched Booker’s statements, and he really couldn’t get them out his head. It just bothered him. And one of the things Booker said was, “I put up with this, I endure all of this treatment so that my children could have a better future.” And David kept wondering: Did his children have a better future?So they started searching for Booker Wright’s family. They found my blog. We met for lunch. And, we really just met to connect, to connect these stories. But we ended up really hitting it off, and we talked for hours. And, if they didn’t have a plane to catch we would have talked longer. At the end of lunch, Raymond looked at me and said, “I think we should make a documentary about this. What do you think?” So, I was like, “Okay,” having no clue what that would even entail.
Do you think Booker was aware of the trouble that lay ahead when he gave the interview?
Frank De Felitta had lots of guilt about putting Booker Wright into this film. He thought that Booker didn’t understand what it meant that it was going to be nationally televised. He thought that Booker, having been born and raised in these small towns, really didn’t know what that meant. So, I sort of went with that assumption too. But as I conducted this research and met with people who lived in Greenwood in the ‘60s, I learned how dangerous it was to just be Black, let alone to speak out. I realize that even if he had difficulty conceptualizing that his words were going to be broadcast on the national stage, he at least understood that they would be seen in Greenwood. He knew the danger he was putting himself in.