Big Hollywood releases drive summer movie schedules, but there are a few notable special screenings this week, including a benefit showing of Men in Black 3 3-D.
A documentary about a documentary, Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, is not the type of film one would expect to find at a multiplex in the summer, but it's at Chalmette Movies and is co-sponsored by the New Orleans Film Society. It's essentially the third release of a brief but stunning film made for NBC in 1966 by Frank De Felitta.
De Felitta wanted to investigate the state of race relations in the Deep South after he read an essay about the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi. De Felitta traveled to Greenwood, Miss., and interviewed white residents, who thought the state of race relations was good and suspected the cameraman from New York was out to paint them in a poor light. De Felitta also interviewed Booker Wright, a charismatic black man who worked at a restaurant open to whites only. The short scene became a wrenching moment in TV history.
Since the age of 14, Wright had worked at Lusco's. He also opened his own restaurant, and continued to work at both. Lusco's didn't have a written menu, and Wright was known for the singsong way he recited all the offerings, which De Felitta filmed, from soft-shell crabs and oysters Rockefeller to steaks. De Felitta also asked Wright what it was like to work in the restaurant, and the answer was painfully honest and revealing. Wright said customers referred to him by name, by nicknames and by racial epithets. He added that it was best to just keep smiling.
"The meaner the man be, the more you smile," Wright said. "Even though you're crying on the inside."
Wright knew the interview was a risky thing to do, and he suffered retaliation. After the piece was broadcast, he lost his job, he was beaten by a police officer and his restaurant was vandalized. (Wright was murdered in 1973, but it is unknown if it was related to the film's notoriety.)
The piece was one of several short films De Felitta kept and eventually shared with his son Raymond De Felitta, also a filmmaker (City Island). Raymond posted the Mississippi film on YouTube last year, and one of the people who saw it was Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson. She had heard her grandfather had been in a film, but she didn't know any of the details.
Raymond's documentary revisits the original film, including interviews with his 90-year-old father about why he made it and what it was like to talk about race in Mississippi in the '60s. He also follows Johnson as she learns about her grandfather and reconnects with her family. (Johnson is working on a book about Wright.) It's intriguing how Johnson was able to recover part of her family's history, but the original footage from Mississippi steals the show. Raymond then takes the original film back to Mississippi to see what people think of it.
"In the 1960s, everyone (in Greenwood) was a segregationist," Raymond said in an interview with Gambit. "It's not until later that they realize they were defending the indefensible."
Frank talks about knowing the film crew might have been in danger, but he made the film anyway. Raymond relates the choice to his father's experiences during World War II, when he photographed Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated.
"Guys serving in World War II like my father knew about the camps," he says. "They didn't know about the level of horror — the ways human beings could treat other human beings."
Booker's Place offers a remarkable look at the risks and responsibilities assumed by several people confronting their times, particularly Booker Wright and Frank De Felitta.
There are two other special screenings this week. The blockbuster Men in Black franchise opens nationally Friday. On Thursday, there is a sneak preview of the 3-D version to benefit the Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Heritage School of Music. Joseph Peixoto is the president of Real D and a longtime fan of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Los Angeles-based Real D provides 3-D projection technology to theaters around the world. (It also is involved in filming concerts.) While launching the cinema portion of the music conference during Jazz Fest, Sync Up founder Scott Aiges and Peixoto had tried to arrange a major 3-D film premiere during the festival, but this became the first available opportunity. Aiges plans to include 3-D films in Sync Up Cinema next year.
The New Orleans Museum of Art's Where Y'Art series will feature a screening of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The film by Shreveport's Moonbot Studios recently won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. This is a rare opportunity to see it on a large screen.