An unlikely journalist, a murder case in Mississippi, and a fascinating literary true crime story in the style of Jon Ronson.
A notorious white supremacist named Richard Barrett was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 2010 by a young black man named Vincent McGee. At first the murder seemed a twist on old Deep South race crimes. But then new revelations and complications came to light. Maybe it was a dispute over money rather than race—or, maybe and intriguingly, over sex.
John Safran, a young white Jewish Australian documentarian, had been in Mississippi and 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—white separatist frenemies, black lawyers, police investigators, oddball neighbors, the stunned families, even the killer himself. And the more he talked with them, the less simple the crime—and the people involved—seemed to be. In the end, he discovered how profoundly and indelibly complex the truth about someone’s life—and death—can be.
This is a brilliant, haunting, hilarious, unsettling story about race, money, sex, and power in the modern American South from an outsider’s point of view.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
John Safran is an award-winning documentarian and radio storyteller on a wide range of subjects, including the media, religion, and race. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. This is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 John Safran
This story begins when I’m ten years old. I’m at a bar mitzvah with my family. And my dad taps me on the shoulder and points to a guy by the buffet, scooping food onto his plate.
“See that man?” my dad whispers.
“Yes,” I say.
“See the tie he’s wearing?”
“See that little symbol on his tie?”
“Yes,” I reply, squinting my eyes.
“That’s the Freemason symbol,” he says. “They’re a secret society. They don’t like it when you ask them about it.”
“Go up and ask him about it,” he tells me.
So I shuffle over to the guy and ask if he’s a Freemason.
“Yes, um,” he splutters, his eyes darting about. “But, listen, we don’t do anything unusual.” He then backs away from the buffet and creeps out of the room.
In that moment I learned there are secret worlds out there. We can glance over a landscape and think we’re seeing everything, but there are realms operating just out of our lines of sight.
I became hooked on secret worlds. And the clunky encounter with the Freemason taught me you can ask questions even when you’re not supposed to. That’s why I became what I became, a documentary filmmaker of sorts. I say “of sorts” because mine are not the straightest of documentaries. I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie—like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.
So the murder at hand? That part of the story begins—although I didn’t know it at the time—about ten years ago. I was filming a segment for a television series called John Safran vs God, in which I tried to join the secret world of the Ku Klux Klan even though I’m a Jew.
My First Meeting with the Klan
I’m boxed in at the Ku Klux Klan compound in Orange County, California. Swastika flags run along the wall. I sit across the desk from the Grand Dragon, a man called Chris. Jesus Christ eyeballs me from the painting hanging behind the Grand Dragon. Four Klansmen stand at attention along the edge of the room.
“I’m a little confused about who can and can’t join the Klan,” I tell the Grand Dragon. “Are you allowed to join the Klan if you’re not American?”
“Yes, absolutely!” he assures me.
“And what about if you’re Catholic?”
“You know, Catholics are every bit as Christian as anyone else,” he says. “Sure.”
“And what happens,” I ask, trying hard not to squirm in my seat, “if you were brought up Jewish but you don’t do anything Jewish anymore? Because that’s where I’m at.”
The Grand Dragon shoots his eyes to his fellow Klansmen.
“Was your mother Jewish?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
What People are Saying About This
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 detailssuch as hedge clippers put to surgical use in the performance of an official autopsy.
A hilarious and bizarre story that leads where you least expect it. John Safran has for years been one of my favourite journalists - forever pushing the boundaries, funny, startling, a hurricane.
Funny and gripping and wonderfully weird.
Praise for God'll Cut You Down
“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 favourite journalists - forever pushing the boundaries, funny, startling, a hurricane." —Jon Ronson, bestselling author of The Psychopath Test and Them
"Imagine In Cold Blood written not by Capote by an Australian, higher-brow Johnny Knoxville." -- Boris Kachka, New York Magazine
"If you enjoyed In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and have been drawn to other true-crime books, then you will probably devour this book.... [Safran's] approach, mixed with a sharp sense of humor, wise pacing, and plain, powerful writing, makes this book into a deeper experience than you suspect... That deeper experience comes from Safran's refusal to quickly analyze according to traditional crime-solving plotlines.... As a more complex picture of the two men's relationships to other people and each other emerges, we follow breathlessly into a kind of mesmerizing psychosocial-cultural drama.... [O]n each reading, it gained a kind of substance--it somehow grew--until I felt it resembled a house of rooms. It gained a personality. In the end, I felt that I knew, personally, Vincent McGee and Richard Barrett... I do not remember a nonfiction book that seemed to bring me so close to its subjects." -- Garden & Gun magazine
“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
"John Safran’s 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 is to true crime what “The Daily Show” is to nightly news. There’s much more mirth than you might expect given the grave matter, and it sublimely unearths some buried truths." —Kirkus
"Funny and gripping and wonderfully weird." —Louis Theroux, BBC journalist