By John Safran
Available now from Riverhead (Penguin Random House)
GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is not the gritty true crime tale you might expect from the title. John Safran is an Australian documentarian who specializes in fairly juvenile pranks. He takes a fairly light approach to murder. I enjoyed seeing an outsider's approach to Mississippi and US racial tensions, and appreciated that Safran was pretty open about his various biases. But I often found him pretty annoying, the sort of guy who isn't half as funny as he thinks he is. I kept reading, however, because he does have a clear and engaging style, and the details of the crime itself are fascinating in their murkiness.
In 2010, Vincent McGee murdered Richard Barrett. Barrett was an infamous racist, the founder of the Nationalist Movement. Vincent McGee was a young black man, in and out of prison, who Barrett hired to do yard work and then stiffed him on the payment. McGee's story about the murder changed several times. It might've been about money, it might've been about Barrett making a sexual pass at him. The media got excited - it was about race, it was about sex - but then the story fizzled.
Safran got interested because he'd played a prank on Barrett years before, getting a DNA sample and announcing in public that Barrett was part black. (It's not the triumph it might seem - Safran admits to switching the sample.) He's also not popular at the time, so he heads off to Mississippi and talks to anyone who will talk to him about the case, and tries to find anyone who knows anything real about what happened. This leads to GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN having a meandering but roughly chronological order. The first half seems to focus more on Barrett, the second half more on McGee. Personally, I think things really start moving after Safran talks to McGee's cousin Michael Dent, who ended up in prison as an accessory.
Sometimes, the interesting parts of the story are about the culture around the murder. Safran finds that on a day-to-day basis, gayness is preferable to blackness, because it can be hidden. Yet most people he talks to would prefer it to be about race, that that would be less shameful to Vincent. Either way or neither way, it's an ugly side of our culture.
If you can stand the narrator, GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is a pretty fascinating read. It isn't a neat one, but it is a fascinating attempt at trying to track down the truth of what happened between two men one night, that resulted in a death.