Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are We Murderers? My Meeting with Frank De Felitta

I am forewarning you that this post is full of ideas that are so overused that I fear they've lost their meaning.  I use phrases here that are at best clichés and at worst a joke.  Why?  Because today I met a truly great man and I want to tell a small part of his story as honestly as I can.  

The truth is that I will probably never see him again, so I have absolutely no motivation to puff him up.  I am not writing this piece under duress, but I am writing it from a state of great admiration and respect. 

Before this afternoon I knew that a national news crew went to Greenwood in the hopes of finding the “true” story of race relations in 1965.  I didn’t know that the vision for this film was really born of one man’s eagerness to literally change the world. 

The phrase “change the world” is itself a cliché.  It sounds both too big and yet, too simple.  It is bright-eyed and overly idealistic.  But this simple idea is the heartbeat of this story.  Regular people can make a difference. 

Booker Wright boldly told the world what was really in his heart.  Frank De Felitta made it possible for him to do it.

Today, when I sat down with Frank I asked him why he wanted to make “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” in the first place.  I wanted to understand what it was that made him interested in the plight of blacks in the Deep South during the civil rights movement.  If you haven’t seen the whole film, you can find links for each part here, here, here, here, and here.

Frank fought in World War II as a flyer.  When the war was officially over, he was asked to tour the concentration camps and assist in collecting data.  What he saw horrified him.  Seeing the bodies and realizing how the Jews were tortured and murdered shocked Frank into a lonely depression that took years for him to climb out of.  He found himself questioning religion and humanity.  Eventually, he rebuilt his life one move at a time.  He had no experience working as a writer and no formal writing training, but he decided to start writing anyway.

He wrote and wrote and wrote, submitting pieces here and there.  Eventually a piece that he penned was picked up by The Whistler.  In the years to come, Frank would go on to write both novels and screenplays.  He would produce, and direct for the stage, for TV, and for film.  We can thank Frank De Felitta for two classic horror flicks The Entity and Audrey Rose.   We can also thank him for numerous other works of thoughtful filmmaking that his son is bringing to the masses on his YouTube channel.   

During his early years as a filmmaker, Frank had a good friend who traveled through the southern states collecting music for Folkways (which is now part of the Smithsonian).  Frank has a gift for knowing a good story when he hears one and he thought that this man’s travels would make an interesting film. 

So, Frank traveled through the south and made a film about jazz.  The film is called “They Hit a Blue Note: Music of the South” and it’s excellent.  This film can be viewed on YouTube.  It appears there in six parts.  It was tricky for me to find all the links so here they are: one, two, three, four, five, and six

This film is about the music, yes.  But it dives deep into telling the story of the slave traditions that gave birth to jazz.  The film clearly shows Frank’s interest in exploring the evolution of black life in the south.  He tells this piece of the story with a curiosity that’s underscored with tenderness.  The best description of “They Hit a Blue Note” is on Frank’s son’s blog, here

When Frank was in the south making "Blue Note" he said that what he observed made him feel like he was being confronted once again with his experience in the concentration camps.  He was conflicted by the way blacks in the south were living.  He wondered, “Why does it have to be like this?”  One of his companions told him that this is the way of the world and that you can’t change it.  Frank simply said, “Well, maybe if we do something we can change it.” 

Not long after this trip Frank read an article in the New York Times that was written by a man named Hodding Carter.  Not only did the article address the way that blacks in the Deep South were fairing, it also put forth the idea that people who saw the atrocities in black America and then did nothing about it, were themselves like murderers.  The question, “Are we murderers?” simply would not leave Frank. 

This article, coupled with Frank’s own experiences in the Deep South, drove him to make “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.” 

I know what you’re thinking.  Can it really be that simple?  Yes, it can be.  Frank De Felitta was a filmmaker.  When he was faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he didn’t go out and run for office.  He picked up his camera and told the story. 

Booker was a waiter.  When faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he sang his menu and told the world what it felt like to be a black waiter in the south.  He didn’t become a leader in the NAACP.  He stood in his restaurant and simply told the truth. 

Hodding Carter was a newspaper man from a small town.  When he was faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he wrote story after story that illustrated the horrors that blacks experienced every day in Mississippi

Sometimes we can feel that we’re not in a position to do something big enough to change the world.  Maybe that’s the great lie.  The truth is that each of us gets that opportunity once or even many times in a lifetime.  It doesn’t have to mean selling all that we own and moving to a war-torn country to provide aid for the newly impoverished, although it could for some.  Maybe we all are meant to “change the world” around us in one very specific way.  We might have very real and very tangible opportunities float right past us as we move through our daily lives.  We just need the eyes to see them.  


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