Every year, in America and the rest of the world, a plethora of documentary films are created examining a mass of different subjects and using a variety of different methods. Not often, however, do we sit back and really ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of these movies?” To simply inform and educate? To provide entertainment and enjoyment for the viewers? To raise awareness of oft-ignored issues? Surely, it’s usually a combination of all of those factors. Sometimes, however, these works can do far more; once in a great while, a film is created that has the power to change our society for the better. It is a rare instance, indeed, when we have a chance – through the art of film or anything else – to go back and try to correct the errors of the past. Only if we are lucky enough are we offered the opportunity to make amends to a great injustice of the past and heal a deep and forgotten wound in our culture. But we should count ourselves lucky, because The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till contains just such an opportunity.
When director Keith Beauchamp began his work investigating the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Louis Till in 1996, he surely had no idea where the project would end up taking him. Till was born in Chicago in 1941. He was a happy and lively black teen when he went to stay with his grandfather and other relatives in rural Money, Mississippi for the summer of 1955. It was here when, probably out of nothing more than a good-natured, joking mood, young Emmett flirtatiously whistled at Carolyn Bryant as she exited the local grocery store. This proved to be a mistake that would cost him his life. Many would later say that being from the North, Emmett Till was simply ignorant of the cultural realities of the region from whence his family had come. Bryant was a white woman. In 1955, in Mississippi, young black men did not whistle at white women. This was an insult to the entire Jim Crow social structure.
Several days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half brother J.W. Milam arrived at the house of Till’s grandfather Moses Wright in the middle of the night and roused the boy from his bed. They told Wright that they were simply going to give the boy a good scare, and then threw him in a truck and drove away. The two white men then proceeded to torture Emmett Till before shooting him, mutilating his body, and finally fastening his corpse to a large cotton-gin fan with barbed wire and tossing it away. The next day Bryant and Milam were picked up on charges of kidnapping. A short time later, a body was found in the Tallahatchie River; Moses Wright was only able to identify his grandson by the ring he was wearing. The body had been made unrecognizable, but still visible were the initials of Louis Till – the child’s father.
The governments of Money and Mississippi tried hard to cover up the horrific nature of this crime – a burial was planned in the area to take place right away. But when Mamie Till learned that her son was to be buried so far from his home, she demanded a stop to it all. She refused to allow her son not to be able to come home to Chicago one last time. There was more to it, though. As she saw the disfigurement that Emmett’s body had endured, Ms. Till knew that the nation must see it for themselves, and that this crime could not be swept away. It was in this spirit that she insisted on an open-casket funeral and would not allow for any cosmetic change to the corpse. Masses came to pay respects and witness the result of the racist crime, and mortifying photographs were printed in the pages of America’s media. Because of his mother’s decision to display the body, a shock was sent through the spine of much of white America; many became aware, for the first time, of the violence and brutality faced by blacks in the South. It is for this reason that Emmett Till’s murder is still considered one of the numerous catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement of the early and mid-1950s.
Despite her efforts, however, Mamie Till died in 2003 without ever seeing justice for her son. Bryant and Milam were declared innocent by an all-white Mississippi jury who chose to ignore the overwhelming and devastating evidence to the contrary. Shortly after being granted their freedom, the men sold their story to Look magazine, while being safely protected by the rules of double-jeopardy. With their confessions, the entire country knew for sure that two murderers had been wrongly acquitted. Yet it has always been suspected that more people were involved in the murder of Emmett Till. Some of these people may still be alive, and for the first time, there is now a chance for real justice. Partially due to the work of Beauchamp and his co-directing brother Kevin, his efforts to bring a renewed awareness to this violent tragedy, the federal government decided in 2004 to reopen the investigation. Perhaps we will now be one step closer to easing the pain of some of the deep wounds that still rip at our society. Of course, no matter what we tell ourselves, these wounds will always be rooted in the history of our land. We can never fully heal them, but we can try to overcome them.
Keith and Kevin A. Beauchamp’s film stands out, however, for more than just raising awareness and stirring change. It is, in its own right, a fantastic documentary work. The story described above is one that is now taught to high school history students all over the country. It has made it into countless television programs and textbooks. Till’s death is now accepted as one of the chief causes of the anti-lynching legislation passed in the post-war era. Yet the Beauchamps are able to tackle it in an entirely new way. Their audience is not met by stuffy historians sitting on large leather chairs in dusty old libraries; we hear the story unfold from the people who were there. Friends, relatives, and activists decribe their feelings and thoughts at the time of the murder and trial, and each provides a different aspect of the story. Hearing the tale from those who witnessed it can be a little shocking at times – it is disturbing to listen to Till’s mother paint a picture of the horrors she saw in such a calm and frank manner – but it is this personal touch which makes the film so incredibly moving.
The most important aspect of The Untold Story of Emmett Till is, perhaps, just that: the story that has never been told before. There was more to Emmett Till than just his death; he also led a life, even if it was one cut dramatically short. The first segment of the film is completely devoted to the telling of the boy himself, and through stories from those who knew him best, we are given a sense of who this person really was. This serves to make the rest of the film all the more powerful. It is a reminder not often seen in discussions of Till’s murder and, indeed, in the study of history in general. We should try to learn from this and see the lesson in Beauchamp’s example. Regardless of what his killers did to take away his humanity, we must never forget that above all Emmett Till was a living, breathing person. If we let go of this fact, all that has come from his death will have been in vain.
Reviewed by Aaron Kahn