In case you were wondering how we spent our January – apart from writing up the results of the 2013 Australian Tumbleweed Awards – you’ll be pleased to hear that we got in some reading. One of our books of choice was John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi, and while it’s not exactly a comedy it is Safran’s first book and it came about as a result of his comedy, so we thought we’d post a quick review.
When Safran was making Race Relations he spent several days in Mississippi with white supremacist Richard Barrett. Safran’s plan was to prank Barrett by getting some of his saliva from a cup he’d drunken from, test it with a Family DNA kit, and see whether Barrett had an African ancestor. Helpful to Safran but unknown to many is the fact that most white people have an African ancestor, albeit one who lived many generations ago. As luck would have it Barrett turned out to be one such white person, enabling Safran to hilariously reveal the results at a “Spirit of America” (white patriotic pride) ceremony Barrett had organised, and then hot foot it out of the country before Barrett had a chance to come after him. But while the Race Relations team got the footage they wanted it turned out that Barrett made his living as a lawyer, and a few months later he sent notice that he would sue the ABC if the sketch ever made it to air. It was duly cut from the series.
A year after Safran had filmed with Barrett, and a few months after Race Relations had aired, Safran was still mired in controversy in the Jewish-dominated Melbourne suburb he lived in. He describes in detail the dirty looks he’d gotten from his neighbours after the show, which was partly about his struggle over whether he should find a Jewish mate or not, had aired. So when he came across an online story about how Richard Barrett had been killed by a black man he welcomed the excuse to get out of town and investigate the matter.
What followed was months of research and writing in Mississippi, during which he tried to uncover the reasons that young African-American McGee had stabbed Barrett. What initially seemed a relatively straightforward case of a black man killing a white supremacist turned out to have a number of bizarre and unlikely angles. In pursuit of the full story Safran travelled throughout the United States, spent days researching in local records offices and talked on numerous occasions to McGee on an illegal cell phone, all while trying to navigate Mississippi’s complex and unfamiliar legal and political systems. Neither Barrett nor McGee turned out to be straightforward characters, and the resulting story wasn’t either.
To say more would be to spoil this tome, which is both a gripping True Crime reportage and a quirky take on an unfamiliar and kinda weird part of the United States. Interestingly, the final sentence in the book is “Got the lead for my next true crime story?” followed by Safran’s e-mail address, so he clearly hopes to write more of this sort of thing. His neighbours must be really hardcore if they’ve put him off making pranks-based TV shows that much!