Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Review: Murder in Missippissi by John Safran

Murder in Mississippi 

Written by: John Safran

Published: 2013

Synopsis: When filming his TV series Race Relations, John Safran spent an uneasy couple of days with one of Mississippi's most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he heard that the man had been murdered – and what was more, the killer was black.

At first the murder seemed a twist on the old Deep South race crimes. But then more news rolled in. Maybe it was a dispute over money, or most intriguingly, over sex. Could the infamous racist actually have been secretly gay, with a thing for black men? Did Safran have the last footage of him alive? Could this be the story of a lifetime? Seizing his Truman Capote moment, he jumped on a plane to cover the trial.

Over six months, Safran got deeper and deeper into the South, becoming entwined in the lives of those connected with the murder – white separatists, black campaigners, lawyers, investigators, neighbours, even the killer himself. And the more he talked with them, the less simple the crime, and the world, seemed.

"Harold says the explanation given by true-crime books for why the killer killed reflects the era in which the book was written. An author tells the story of how the world works, and that's why we read true crime books."

John Safran is one of my favourite Australians. I feel like I say that a lot about creative Australians, but in this case it's absolutely the truth. I was first introduced to him through his show John Safran's Music Jamboree, which was part documentary series, part comedy sketch show, part celebration of all things musical. Considering the only music shows I'd really known before that were basically just an hour or two of music clips, it was fascinating to see a man in a mole costume provide insider tidbits about the music industry or pranks like Safran getting 9 ordinary men into a nightclub by dressing them up like Slipknot.

After that I became a devout fan of Safran, who is something like an Australian Louis Theroux (who I also love a whole bunch). Safran has a fascination with race and religion, so a lot of his shows centre around both the mainstream and the fringe aspects of these subjects. And like Theroux, Safran inserts himself into his documentaries so they become as much an investigation of himself and his identity as they are about fringe churches, alien languages or racist organisations. And perhaps it's because there's so much of himself in the shows, but they never come off as judgemental of the (often) absurd, bizarre or hateful people he meets. Which is not to say he isn't critical, but as he points out the flaws, contradictions or alternative points of view he also remains (mostly) impartial. He also has a wicked sense of humour, so if you've been looking for a new show, you should absolutely try and hunt down John Safran Vs God because it's fascinating stuff.

Not surprisingly, John Safran has made a few enemies. As his debut non-fiction novel begins, he's hiding out in his home in Melbourne, avoiding the critics of his latest TV show and surfing conspiracy and white supremacist websites for new material. It's one on of these sites that he finds out about the murder of Richard Barrett, a white supremacist from Mississippi that Safran had met during the filming of one of his shows*.

Murder in Mississippi is not your standard true crime book. It isn't an investigation into a heinous crime or the multiple crimes of a charismatic yet evil murderer, and there is neither a large trial to follow or a neat resolution. The case had received a small amount of national press, but Safran headed down this path because he knew the murder victim, and while Barrett, in the world of white supremacists, is pretty small time he'd had a lasting effect on Safran and his crew.
I've spent a decade with Craig and Germain. We've hung with evangelical hucksters, Holocaust deniers and terrorists. I have never seen these two scrunch up their faces like Richard has made them scrunch up their faces.  
When Safran found out that Barrett was murdered by a young black neighbour his interest was piqued. When rumours surfaced that Barrett was killed because he made unwanted sexual advances on his murderer, Safran packed his bags. But when he arrived in Mississippi his expectations of how the book would come about, and the secrets he expected to turn up are dashed. Rather than simply investigating a crime, Safran finds himself struggling against the conflicts and confusions of the southern state.
Mississippi doesn't waste any time. The Jackson in the airport name is President Andrew Jackson, pro-slavery campaigner and master to three hundred slaves. The Medgar-Evers is Medgar Wiley Evers, a black activist who collapsed and died outside his house in 1963 after a Klansman had shot him in the back. You land straight into a race war.
From the minute Safran touched down nothing went to plan. His reputation preceded him and people who knew Barrett closed ranks, and the family and friends of Barrett's murderer, Vincent McGee, had no desire to help Safran get to the bottom of the story. The people who did talk to him give him little more than conjecture, coloured by their political, racial or cultural allegiances. He's stuck driving between tiny Mississippi towns, clinging to the tiniest of details and offering the world for the slightest bit of information to help him uncover the truth.

The result of all of this is a fascinating mess of a book. It's a memoir of John Safran, it's a how-to (and how-not-to) write a true crime novel, and it's a complex investigation of race, sexuality and cultural politics in Mississippi. And that's why I loved this book. You hear the mini-synopsis, "white supremacist murdered by black man" and you think it'd be an open-shut story. But it's not, there are so many contradictions, so many muddled up misunderstandings. You think this is going to be a story about black versus white, but it's less about a passionate hate on either side and more of an indoctrinated expectation of hatred.  For instance, take the fact that Barrett lived in an almost all black neighbourhood, and no one knew he was a white supremacist. How does someone who champions one race over all others live surrounded by the people he hates and then be remembered as a friendly old man?

Similarly, the friendship that Safran ends up forging with Vincent McGee is equally interesting. While making contact proved impossible at first, the promise of Walmart Green Dot cards encouraged Vincent to come out of his shell and Safran finds himself perplexed by the young man accused of Barrett's murder. Vincent is charming and funny, but it's impossible to work out if he's ever telling the truth. His story differs from the one he told his family, which differs from the one he told the cops. Is he terrified of being labelled gay? Is being gay in Mississippi worse than being black? Would he rather spend 75 years in jail labelled a murderer  than go to trial and being found innocent, guilty of only killing a man in self defense after a sexual relationship turned sour? This book doesn't make sense of any of this, it remains perplexing to the very end. But it is a fascinating glimpse into a very difficult and unique state.

As Safran is a film and TV veteran and this is his debut book, there are a few understandable issues. At times it reads like a script, piecing together the necessary visual components with piece-to-camera narration. But I actually really enjoyed Safran's writing style, it's very visual and very personable, much like his onscreen persona. If you've seen his shows and like his style, you will undoubtedly enjoy this book. If you're a huge true crime fan this might be too much of a departure from the traditional format for you to enjoy, but conversely, if you don't usually like true crime, this might be encompassing enough to draw you in.

*Safran got a secret DNA test of Richard Barrett and told him he had African ancestors during Barrett's white-only Spririt of American awards. Barrett, unsurprisingly, was not happy.


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