Beyond the classroom: Student's project becomes Tribeca Film Fest darling

Johnson with mother, aunt

ASU student subject of documentary, 'Dateline' NBC special

An ASU student will take a turn in the national spotlight later this month after her research project led to a full-length documentary and an hour-long primetime special.

When Yvette Johnson started a research blog for her Family History Writing class, she couldn’t possibly imagine it would become the basis for both Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story – one of the most talked about films of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival – and a full "Dateline" NBC broadcast hosted by Lester Holt that is scheduled to air July 15.

“This past year has been truly amazing," Johnson said. "Not only have I been able to bring my grandfather’s heroic story to the world, but I met amazing people along the way.”

Johnson’s sojourn started when she began researching the life of her grandfather, Booker Wright, a black restaurant owner who also served double-duty as a waiter in a “whites only” restaurant in Greenwood, Miss., in the 1960s. He became an unlikely activist for the civil rights movement when he appeared in 1966 on NBC in a documentary by Frank De Felitta, who was reporting on racism in the South. Wright’s candid interview exploded the myth of who he was and his experience serving the white community.

“The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” Booker said to the camera.

The interview sent shock waves throughout the community of Greenwood, known for its hostility surrounding segregation. As a result of the broadcast, Wright lost his job, was pistol-whipped by a cop who was never charged, and later was murdered under murky circumstances.

Forty-six years later, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, contacted Johnson and together they took an emotional journey into the past to explore Wright’s life and death, the tensions in the Mississippi Delta during the civil rights era, and the role the documentary may have played in Wright’s demise.

While the documentary explores the ugliness of racism, Johnson said the filmmaking process has been a positive experience, albeit a highly emotional one. As co-producer, she was given the opportunity to further her research and had a voice in shaping the film’s story.

"Booker’s Place" received rave reviews from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood Reporter, Filmmaker and critic Roger Ebert, and was the toast of the Tribeca Film Festival this past April. Johnson is currently writing a memoir based on her recent experiences, which brings great delight to Sherry Rankins-Robertson, her English instructor.

“The most we can hope for any writing student to achieve is the ability to see the application of her work beyond the university," said Rankins-Robertson, who teaches writing in the School of Letters and Sciences on the Polytechnic campus. "Yvette’s journey from the Family History Writing classroom to Tribecca is so much more than I could have imagined when she declared, ‘I want to know about my grandfather,’ on the first day of my class.

“I have traveled alongside Yvettte during her long, silent journey that all writers make when evolving any idea into a larger project. She has worked diligently to understand, explore and uncover the many angles of this film and book project.”

To correspond with the Dateline premiere, Johnson has compiled essays, notes and posts from her popular blog in an eBook called “Searching for Booker Wright” which will be available for download on The film is available as an instant movie on and on iTunes.

For more information on the film, click here.