Safran, John. “God’ll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi”, Riverhead, 2014.
A True Crime Story
Here is the story of an unlikely journalist, a murder case in Mississippi. In 2010, a notorious white supremacist named Richard Barrett was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 2010 by a young black man named Vincent McGee. The first thought that was held by many was that this murder was d a twist on old Deep South race crimes. But then new revelations and complications came to light and maybe, just maybe it was caused by a dispute over money rather than race—or, maybe it was over sex.
Author John Safran , a young white Jewish Australian documentarian, had been in Mississippi interviewed Barrett for a film on race. When he learned of Barrett’s murder, he returned to find out what happened and became caught up in the twists and turns of the case. During his time in Mississippi, Safran got deeper and deeper into this gothic southern world, becoming entwined in the lives of those connected with the murder. These included white separatist “frenemies”, black lawyers, police investigators, oddball neighbors, stunned families, even the killer himself. The more Safran talked with people, the less simple the crime and the people involved seemed to be. What he discovered in the end was how profoundly and indelibly complex the truth about someone’s life—and death—can be.
Having been raised in the South, I can tell you that there are such deep roots in the South that cannot be shaken. Perhaps that is why I could so easily relate to this story. Had I been raised in Boston where I live now, I doubt that the book would have the same effect on me. Aside from being a journalist, Safran is a jokester. Like I said, he had interviewed Barrett once before and learned that this white supremacist had black blood and this is what opened doors for him. When he heard that Barrett had been murdered, he went back to Mississippi to investigate and get the story of what happened.
Barrett was not a born Southerner; he was in fact a transplant. His belief in racism didn’t originate in a family steeped in the South for generations. He was from New York and his racist views stemmed from the Vietnam War. He also lived in a mostly black neighborhood. There were also rumors that he was secretly gay.
In order to get a cohesive story, Safran had to dig and he uncovered a several scandalous tidbits. However when a writer puts himself into the non-fiction book, there is always a risk of being too cute or too self-involved and what they think can become more important than the subject.
Richard Barrett was a Ku Klux Klan whose death by multiple stab wounds made for an interesting racial crime, only the author quickly finds out that no one in the white supremacist groups even liked Richard. In fact, Barrett frequently made more trouble for the groups than they wanted. Furthermore, most of the white supremacists found Barrett to be a little creepy and possibly homosexual. Even more puzzling is the fact that most of Barrett’s black neighbors did not know that he was a white supremacist until he died and they had always thought that he was polite.
The book is an examination of Barrett and the killer whose story keeps changing and who keeps trying to get money out of the author. At this point, the disappointment of not having an easy murder with a neat motivation becomes the story since Vincent could be a hustler or he could be angry over money. The story keeps changing.
I really enjoyed the writing style of this book and Safran’s knowledge of race, nationality, and various religious backgrounds makes this book intriguing and mesmerizing. The story led me to ask questions:
Do we have a personality conflict here? Exactly what went wrong? Why would a White Supremacist have a Black Man working for him? Was there something more that the people didn’t know that was going on behind closed doors between the two? What exactly led to the murder? Was this White Supremacist really a racist? Some of these questions are answered and some are left for us to think about. What exactly led to all of this considering that all was well for a given time and then it turns into a tangled web of a mess; whereas this book itself becomes a real gripping cold blooded murder.
Safran tells us that he hoped the case would go a certain way, and accepts that things were very different than what he’d expected. He was able to look at racial tensions in America from the outside, and write in a way that is neither politically correct or politically charged. He is also annoying and self-adsorbed, albeit in an amusing way. Some of Safran’s methods are questionable, to say the least, but the book is well worth reading – in part, because of the author’s methods and sense of humor.
Here is what other critics are saying:
“John Safran’s captivating inquiry into a murder in darkest Mississippi is by turns informative, frightening and hilarious. It is enlivened by a swarm of creepy locals and a torrent of astonishing details–such as hedge clippers put to surgical use in the performance of an official autopsy.”—John Berendt, bestselling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
“A hilarious and bizarre story that leads where you least expect it. John Safran has for years been one of my favorite journalists – forever pushing the boundaries, funny, startling, a hurricane.” —Jon Ronson, bestselling author of The Psychopath Test and Them
“Safran’s book will make readers chuckle, fidget, and turn page after page wondering what will happen next as the author looks to find the truth about the murder of a white supremacist by a black man in the Deep South…. This true crime book will stick with readers. Safran does a great job of looking at the murder from multiple perspectives and brings in his own experience learning about the culture, which is in itself a character. For fans of true crime, Southern tales, and books similar to Capote’s [In Cold Blood] and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” —Library Journal, STARRED review
“It’s not often that the retelling of a brutal murder is full of laughs but documentarian and debut author Safran is an entertaining writer… Weaving a tale that is simultaneously about race, failed systems, money, sex, family and simple rage, Safran truly did lose a year in Mississippi, and getting lost with him is a joy.” —Kirkus, STARRED review
“[T]his stranger-than-fiction true crime story finds Safran—a white, Jewish documentary filmmaker from Australia—relocating to Rankin County, Miss., to dig deep into the grisly stabbing murder of a 67-year-old white supremacist in April 2010… [A] bizarrely unsettling, yet often witty book that paints a disturbing picture of the deep South today.” —Publishers Weekly
“Funny and gripping and wonderfully weird.” —Louis Theroux, BBC journalist