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How Author John Safran Lost A Year In Mississippi


John Safran is a documentary filmmaker from Australia. And he is fascinated by issues surrounding race, especially in the American South. So when he had the chance to interview a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi, he leapt at it. And a year later, Safran found out the same man, Richard Barrett, had been killed, presumably by a young black man named Vincent McGee. Safran traveled to Mississippi to get to the bottom of the crime. His new book about that experience is called "God Will Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale Of A White Supremacist, A Black Hustler, A Murder And How I Lost A Year In Mississippi." When we spoke, Safran described the night of the murder.

JOHN SAFRAN: Vincent was over at Richard Barrett's house at night, which is already a bit weird. Like, why would he have gone over there? And on the surface level the explanation was that Vincent, you know, 'cause he didn't have a computer at his house, and he - and so he went over to use Richard Barrett's computer. And then something happened in that little house. On one level, it could have been they just had a fight over Facebook, like, get off my computer. That was, like, Vincent's - how he was trying to get me to think that was the version of events. Like, they just had a fight over who was on the computer. And then another version is Richard made a sexual advance on Vincent. But whatever happened is Richard ended up with heaps of stab wounds around his neck. And he just lay there and he kind of bled for the whole night. And then Vincent tried to light both Richard Barrett and also his house on fire to try to destroy the evidence.

MARTIN: So Richard Barrett is murdered. You find out about this.


MARTIN: And you decide that you need to fly to Jackson, Mississippi.


MARTIN: And kind of see where the story leads you, Truman Capote style.


MARTIN: What in the world were you expecting to find because you did have kind of some preconceptions about how this went down?

SAFRAN: It was true. When I went over there, I wanted to be a real, like, conventional race story, I guess. In the Deep South where, like, a black man has been unfairly imprisoned by hillbillies in the deep South. And I wanted the story to be me almost, like, advocating for this guy. And, you know, in my imagination it'd be, like, me hanging out with his family and then hanging out with his lawyers. And, you know, we're like a team, and I'm writing the book that's sort of, like, advocating for his innocence.

MARTIN: There's actually - I'm going to read this. There's actually a little bit here where you're writing about that very idea. I'm quoting here. (Reading) I wanted the narrative to be me and the brave McGee family against the system. I wanted to be hanging with the black activist lawyers, but they've cut me off. Worse, I got on smashingly with Jim, the white supremacist. This story isn't working out like it should.

SAFRAN: Yeah. That was another unfortunate thing. Quite early on I kind of - I hooked up with this white supremacist frenemy of Richard Barrett, the white supremacist who was killed. And, yeah, I sort of just kind of really bonded with him. And it was like - and then when I realized, oh, my God, this is, like, pretty bad for the book. There's no market for a book where, like, the guy's, like, oh, anyway I got on like a house on fire with the white supremacist. Not so much with, like, the family of the black guy who got imprisoned. So yeah, it started just getting messier and messier, I guess. And because this was my first book, I didn't quite work out at that point that messiness is good.

MARTIN: This is also - we should say - a really funny book in some very surprising ways. Did you find it hard to make that turn at times when you were writing this?

SAFRAN: In my documentary work I found that the comedy, like, black company works as long as there's - I'm sort of part of the stakes. So for instance, like, if I'm filming a documentary, and I say something really provocative to someone on camera that's, you know, wrong or black humor - like, that's fine because I've actually put myself at risk. But if I do a, like, a voiceover later, you know, where I make some sarcastic comment, it suddenly doesn't work as comedy 'cause it just - everyone knows it's just utterly gutless. Like, oh, good one, John...

MARTIN: It's too easy, yeah.

SAFRAN: ...After the fact when, you know, when the Klansman left, you made a sarcastic comment. Yeah, you gutless wonder. So I think there's a bit of that in the book where I kind of stripped it of all the stuff where it seemed like, oh, that's a bit easy or that's a bit gutless and just kept in the comedy where it looked like I actually could've been punched in the face by someone.

MARTIN: What happened to Vincent McGee? Was he convicted?

SAFRAN: He took a plea bargain. So block your ears if you don't want to...

MARTIN: Spoiler alert, yeah.

SAFRAN: Spoiler alert. He accepted 65 years jail as a plea bargain rather than pleading self-defense because his original story was I was attacked by the white supremacist Richard Barrett. So surely he should've plead self-defense, but he took 65 years jail instead. And so then the question became, well, why wouldn't you just roll the dice and have a court case? Like, what do you have to lose? It seems like nothing could be worse than getting 65 years jail. And that's when it kind of it comes out, like, did he do that because he didn't want it to come out in the court case that he was having some kind of sexual relationship with Richard Barrett where he was getting paid for sex?

MARTIN: What was your last interaction with him, your last bit of communication?

SAFRAN: I still talk to his brother and the family every so often. But he's definitely, like, lost in a system there.

MARTIN: John Safran - his new book is called "God Will Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale Of A White Supremacist, A Black Hustler, A Murder And How I Lost A Year In Mississippi." John, thanks so much for talking with us.

SAFRAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.