Ahwatukee Foothills resident Yvette Johnson is quickly gaining national recognition by telling the story of a man she has never even met.
Her grandfather, Booker Wright, was killed the year before she was born and is the subject of her recent documentary, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” which focuses on racial tensions and Wright’s role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
In 1966, Wright was featured in an NBC documentary by filmmaker Frank DeFelitta; his controversial interview about his struggles in the segregated town of Greenwood, Miss., caused him to be beaten, his business to be bombed, and most likely led to his murder seven years later.
This inspired Johnson, whose parents moved her family out of Greenwood to San Diego when she was 2, to embark on a research project to learn her grandfather’s story and about her family’s past.
“I knew very little about where I came from,” Johnson said when asked about what kick started her journey. “I never had a sense of roots, but that never really bothered me until I had kids and wanted them to have an understanding of their culture.”
So in July of 2007, already a mother and working toward her bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, Johnson decided to begin studying her grandfather and the famous NBC segment that may have cost him his life. But despite several attempts, Johnson could never track down a copy of Wright’s NBC interview with DeFelitta. Finally, in April of 2011, she got a break.
DeFelitta and his son, Raymond, contacted Johnson while going through the numerous documentaries he had made in his career. Once Johnson and the two DeFelitta’s had met, Wright’s story was well on its way to evolving into a full-scale documentary.
“It was sort of born out of a lunch meeting,” Johnson said, laughing. “Raymond looked over at me and said, ‘Let’s make a documentary,’ and I said OK without really realizing what I was getting into.”
During the year since they first met, the younger DeFelitta (the director of “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story”) and Johnson traveled to Greenwood to interview residents about 1960s race relations and about Johnson’s grandfather. The product is a moving documentary that explores America’s racism and the repercussions of Wright’s interview on himself, his family, and his town. Since its release in the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” has gained national acclaim.
“When people think of the Civil Rights Movement, they think of these names like Martin Luther King Jr.,” Johnson said. “But those people wouldn’t have made any impact without the everyday people.”
People like Johnson’s grandfather, who allowed his interview to air even knowing the consequences. It’s probably the intimacy and personal aspect of Johnson and DeFelitta’s film that makes it unique as a Civil Rights documentary, and perhaps why it has been so well received. Johnson recorded the whole process on her blog as she went, and this week Amazon released an eBook compiling some of the entries in a sort of emotional record of the project. Johnson is also working on a larger book that will attempt to bring Booker Wright to life as a character for readers.
Tonight, however, Johnson and DeFelitta’s journey will come full-circle, ending where the story first began: on NBC. Generations after airing the documentary that changed Wright’s life, Dateline NBC has planned a one-hour special on “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” and the history of its making beginning at 6 p.m. on July 15. For Johnson, it’s all she could ask for.
“I started this wanting the whole world to know my grandfather’s story,” she said. “It looks like that’s coming true.”
The film, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” is available for rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu and will be available for purchase in October. Johnson’s blog can be found at www.bookerwright.com.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Mitchell Hammer is a senior at Desert Vista High School. He is interning this summer for the Ahwatukee Foothills News.