‘Race relations,’ hate crimes, and sharp wit in American South

John Safran writes about losing a year in Mississippi in his true crime debut

Sarah Lentz, Opinion Editor

John Safran made his neighbors mad.

The Australian comedian and TV presenter made a show called “John Safran’s Race Relations,” which was (comedically) critical of his conservative Jewish upbringing.

Fortunately for readers, the peo­ple in his neighborhood were so upset about the stunts in his show that it pushed Safran to go to the U.S., follow a murder trial and write a true crime book, “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.”

Early in the book, Safran ex­plains why he decided to leave his continent for a year and follow the story of Vincent McGee, a young African-American man accused of murdering well-known white supremacist Richard Barrett.

While making “Race Relations” Safran filmed a segment where he was going to try to convince a white supremacist that they actually had African ancestry. Somehow, Safran was able to find Richard Barrett, of Pearl, Miss. who made no bones about being a white nationalist, as his target.

Safran met with Barrett and established a rapport and even helped set up for an event Barrett had organized. At the end of their time together, Safran presented fake DNA results that showed Barrett had African ancestry, all of which was caught on camera for Safran’s show.

Barrett, who prided himself on being a leader in the skinhead move­ment, was caught off guard and threatened to sue not only Safran, but also the Australian Broadcast­ing Company if the segment made it to air.

Cut to one year later (and three months after Safran’s offending show airs), and Safran reads online that Barrett has been murdered.

And so the real story begins.

“God’ll Cut You Down” focuses mostly on Barrett and his accused killer McGee and the circumstances leading up to the murder. It doesn’t take long before Safran realizes al­most no one in the small community of Pearl knows the real Barrett or McGee, so he takes it upon himself to explore the men behind their respective personas.

Hate crimes are not new to the American South, but this particular story is already a bit different be­cause it’s about a black man, who works for an out and proud white supremacist, and kills him after an altercation. Shortly after arriving in Mississippi, Safran finds out there is an added element of intrigue be­cause there is some suggestion that the murder had a sexual component to it.

The most interesting parts of “God’ll Cut You Down” come from Safran’s observations about life in Mississippi. Everyone from outside the South has preconceived notions about the region, but it is even more interesting to see how someone from another continent processes the area, its people and its social environment.

Keep in mind that Safran is a comedian and documentarian. Also keep in mind that this is his first book.

The readers get to go along for the ride as Safran learns how to write a true crime book mostly by trial and error. Through all of the interviews with McGee’s family, Barrett’s rivals and even politicians, Safran gives an honest account of his ex­periences and isn’t afraid to leave unanswered questions on the table.

“God’ll Cut You Down” is almost like reading the script for a really long, somewhat disorganized seg­ment of “The Daily Show.” It’s no “In Cold Blood,” but a smart-witted true crime story that millennials can appreciate.