When very white, very Jewish and very Australian documentarian and comedian John Safran went down to Mississippi to film segments for his 2009 show John Safran’s Race Relations, he pulled off a prank where he managed to convince a white supremacist that he actually had African ancestry (and did so in front of a ballroom’s worth of people gathered for a “Spirit of America Day” banquet.) It was quite the trick and it never aired on television, as the white supremacist in question, one Richard Barrett, brought a case against the production.
For Safran, that would have been the end of the story. But when Barrett was later found murdered, “stabbed to death in his burning house,” and a twenty-two-year-old black man, Vincent McGee, was charged with the crime, Safran realized two things: one, he had a story. Two, he also had the last footage of Richard Barrett alive.
With that knowledge, Safran moved to Mississsippi in order to write and report on the case. He may have been following in the footsteps of Truman Capote and John Berendt’s southern true crime classic Midnight in the Garden of Evil, but he’s open about his neophyte status: “I don’t really know what I’m doing. For weeks I’ve been reading true crime book after book after book for hints… Arrive early and befriend the local yahoos. That’s how you paint a picture of the town, understand the context.” He literally prays to (St.) Janet Malcolm, the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, the lacerating, seminal work about the ethics of nonfiction.
What Safran brought to this apparently cut-and-dried case, as it grew more sordid and dangerous, was an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t have first-hand experience of the generations’ and years’ worth of tangled history of race, economics, and politics, so he’s willing to do the legwork.
He writes in a series of quick shots — when he meets a minor character, like Vella Greer, a woman who fronted the Vincent McGee Defense Fund, he pans out, writing a short essay titled “The Ballad of Vallena Greer” so we can see how this woman’s past may, in fact, shape her present. He does this repeatedly, with “The Ballad of Minor Character X.”
It’s an effective technique, and counterbalanced nicely by the actual parameters of the Barrett murder. Safran writes, “My entry point to understanding this murder has been race, Race, RACE!” but as he talks to more people and learns more about Barrett’s life and McGee’s life, secrets come out. Sex and class figure into the mix: Barrett was in the closet, McGee’s sexuality was… fluid, depending on the circumstance; Barrett ripped off McGee repeatedly, and McGee needed money; and the motives get murkier.
While Barrett can’t say much, Safran does get in touch with McGee. His relationship with the defendant goes through several revolutions. There’s some dark comedy in the culture clash of a Jewish Australian negotiating with a prisoner over how much money he can add to his WalMart Green Dot cards while also trying to nail him down for an interview in order to find out the truth of that night; comedy that reaches its funny/sad apex when Safran essentially works as the middleman for a marriage proposal.
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 as knotty as its title entails, and thanks to Safran’s sharp and curious outsider’s perspective, it’s engrossing true crime — with no good guys or bad guys — just a mess of quizzical, dryly funny, maddening, ever-elusive human nature.