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DVD Review: The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

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On a hot summer day, a young teenager named Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till saw an attractive woman walk by him. So he did what most young men his age do: He whistled at her. Pretty normal day.

Except that this woman was white, the young teen was black and they were both in Mississippi in 1955. Sadly, this whistle would cost him his life.

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is a heartbreaking look into the reality of life in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary retells the story of Emmett Till, his murder and the following farce of a trial.

Emmett Till was born in July of 1941. He grew up in Chicago, raised by both his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley and grandmother. Like many young boys, he was a prankster. He had a quick wit and didn’t always think before he spoke. But according to all who knew him, he was a happy and loving child.

In August of 1955, Emmett went to Money, Mississippi to stay with his grandfather and great uncle. No one explained to him that there were certain “rules” to live by when it came to being black in Mississippi. One afternoon, he, his cousins, and some friends went out to the local store. Inside Carolyn Bryant was working behind the counter. While no one was in the store with him when he paid, Emmett apparently touched Ms. Bryant’s hand when he paid for his purchase. That was his first mistake. Afterwards as the group of young men was walking out of the store, Ms. Bryant also came out and went to her car. It was at that point that Emmett turned around and whistled at her.

About three days later, Mose Wright (Emmett’s great uncle) opened his front door at 2:30 AM and was met by two white men who were looking for “the boy from Chicago.” Claiming that they simply wanted to teach the boy a lesson, Roy Bryant (Carolyn Bryant’s husband) and his half-brother J.W. Milam dragged a groggy Emmett Till out of his bed. They told Mose Wright they would let him go.

Emmett Till’s body was found a few days later floating in the Tallahatchie River. A 70-pound cotton gin was tied to his neck with a piece of barbed wire. He had been beaten beyond recognition and shot. At his funeral, against the wishes of the Sheriff’s department in Mississippi, his mother insisted on having an open casket, so that the world could see what the South had done to her child..

This is the story that most people know when it comes to Emmett Till’s case. Keith A. Beauchamp’s film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till goes beyond the funeral and reveals what went on behind the scenes at the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. The tale Beauchamp shows his audience is one of injustice in the court system due to the racist ideals held at that time in Mississippi.

In interviews with Till’s mother, his cousins, activists like Al Sharpton and Charles Evers (Medgar’s brother), and former newspaper reporters, the story of what happened during the trial unfolds. Interspersed between the interviews are selections of footage from the trial and the news coverage that followed it. The film looks at the cover up attempt by the town of Money’s sheriff department, the NAACP’s secret investigation into the case, the purchase and printing of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam’s confession in Look magazine, and the eventual re-opening of the case in 2004.

The film, while a really good look at the case, feels a little rushed. It packs everything into 70 minutes, which makes it a great film for educational purposes, assuming that is part of its purpose. There are education packets geared to using the film for the classroom, which is where it would have the best impact, I feel. There is also extra commentary by Beauchamp as well as a panel discussion on the impact of the Emmett Till case in American history put on by the Civil Rights Project out of Harvard University.

It’s a hard film to watch. I don’t know what’s more disturbing: the description of how Emmett looked after he was found, or how calmly his mother describes the first time she viewed his body. The photographs and footage of Emmett’s body and funeral are not for those with weak stomachs. But this should not be a deterrent. The horrible nature of the Till case was what pushed many to fight against Jim Crow laws and what laid the ground work for the Civil Rights Movement.

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