Though it has already received national recognition, the documentary co-produced by Ahwatukee Foothills resident Yvette Johnson is premiering in Tempe next week.
Kicking off with a New York City premiere earlier this year, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” is about Johnson’s grandfather’s life in 1960s Mississippi.
Since 2007, Johnson has been on a quest to uncover the truth about the life of her grandfather, Booker Wright. What started as a simple, family history search while taking a course at Arizona State University, turned into a deep dive into her family’s past, and an exploration of racism in the South.
“It’s an amazing ride,” said Johnson, who mentioned she wants her two young sons to grow up knowing their family history.
But the process of making the documentary was at times odd, according to Johnson.
Admitting it was “nuts at first,” Johnson said the film crew and director helped her understand the medium of documentary filmmaking.
“The crew was so good that at times it became part of the wallpaper,” Johnson said.
Through tough interviews of people who knew Wright, uncovering family secrets, and emotional conversations, Johnson said the film’s director Raymond De Felitta made the process comfortable.
De Felitta, though, had a personal stake in the journey.
In 1966, Wright was featured in a documentary about the way blacks were treated in the South. In less than two minutes, Wright talked about how it felt to be on the receiving end of racism as a waiter in a Greenwood, Miss., restaurant. The director of that early 1960s film was De Felitta’s father, Frank De Felitta.
After the film aired, Wright was beaten by police, lost his job of 25 years, and was murdered seven year later, likely a result of his comments in the film.
“It explores the documentarian’s dilemma,” Johnson said of the new film. “It explores the question of, ‘when you examine a life, do you change it?’”
In addition to the documentary, Johnson is working on her second book about Wright. The new book, though in its early stages, aims to paint a tangible picture of her grandfather, his restaurant, and his life growing up on a plantation.
Once a stay-at-home mom, Johnson now travels all over doing research for her continuing journey into the past.
“We never would have envisioned this for our lives,” she said. “Now it makes sense for us.”
ASU’s Project Humanities will premiere “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, on Thursday, Sept. 13.
A panel discussion with Johnson and De Felitta will follow the showing. The film and panel are free and no tickets are required.
For more information about Johnson’s research, visit bookerwright.com.
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