Stanley Nelson’s “The Murder of Emmett Till” airs on “American Experience” tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). It is one of the documentaries showing in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Although I’d read about the murder of Emmett Till in school and it is included in other documentaries, the story has even more impact after watching this hour. One of the main reasons is the participation of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley who died on January 6th.
Her husband was been killed fighting in World War II. Emmett wore his ring when he left Chicago to visit his family in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 just after he turned 14. When he was leaving a store on a Wednesday in the tiny town of Money, he reportedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who owned it with her husband (who wasn’t there that day).
That Sunday, her husband and another man came for Till, brutally beat him and shot him. They tossed his body in a river tied to a 75 pound weight. When it was found, his uncle was only able to identify him because of his father’s ring.
She describes seeing her son’s body, and we eventually see a photo of his face. She decided to have her son’s casket open and more than 50,000 people saw his body in Chicago. The photos were also published along with a story in Jet magazine.
After the men were acquitted by a jury of white men (the section of the film on the trial is almost as horrifying as the part on the murder), she travelled around the country speaking about what happened to her son. The killers sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000 and the article is online.
Many believe that the attention the murder received helped spark the civil rights movement, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began just just three months later. Although a lot of things have changed, “The Two Towns of Jasper” on the murder of James Byrd which airs Wednesday night shows that racist murders still happen.
DeWayne Wickham suggested in USA Today that President Bush should spend this evening with Nelson watching “The Muder of Emmett Till.” Nelson is being interviewed today on the PBS Newshour (I’ll include a link to the interview when it is available online). He won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship last year and the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance in 1999 for “The Black Press” (which I wrote about).
He also directed “Marcus Garvey” for “American Experience” which is available on DVD.
In February, the Museum of Modern Art will be presenting a retrospective of his films, “Stanley Nelson: The Art of Making People Think.”
Nelson is currently developing documentaries on domestic violence in the African-American community, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the transatlantic slave trade.
This was written for TVBarn where Aaron Barnhart has filed his first Sundance diary.