The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2005) Review
(More customer reviews)It was in August of 1955 that 15-year-old Emmett Till was sent from Chicago by his mother to spend the summer with his great uncle, Moses Wright, in Money, Mississippi. On August 24, Till and some other black teenagers who had been picking cotton went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to get some candy. In the store Till allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant. When her husband returned from a trip several days later and heard about the incident, Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam decided to "teach the boy a lesson." On August 28, they kidnapped Till from his uncle's house, too him to a plantation shed, brutalized the boy, shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie river, having tied a seventy pound fan from a cotton gin around Till's neck with barbed wire. The two men were tried and found not guilty by an all-white jury. In January 1956 their confession was paid for and published by "Look" magazine. Both men would die from cancer, Milam in 1980 and Bryant in 1990.
I do not remember when I first heard of Emmett Till, but the story of the black teenager who was killed by white men in Mississippi for the crime of whistling at a white woman was a pivotal event in energizing the Civil Rights Movement and I have known about it for a long time. However, I never saw a photograph of Emmett Till's body until I was at the Seattle Art Museum looking at an exhibit having to deal with depictions of race and gender in art, and there was a small photograph of Till's body on display at his funeral. The photograph was too small to tell any details, but you were struck by the swollen and misshaped head. It did not look human, but then to Milam and Bryant, Emmett Till was never a human being.
The title of Keith A. Beauchamp's documentary is "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," not because the story has not been told, but because the people he interviewed, including Till's mother, Mamie Carthan Mobley, along with several cousins and friends from that summer in Mississippi, never had a chance to tell their story in court. Beauchamp provides them with that opportunity, using newsreel footage from 1955 as well. It follows the chronology of events, from Till's birth to the present and Beauchamp's own investigations into the case (his chief claim is that up to 14 other people were involved in the crime in various ways). For just telling the story and covering the facts, Beauchamp keeps things pretty basic in his documentary, letting people speak for themselves.
The most unforgettable part of the documentary is when Mobley tells the story of getting her son's body back home. Officials in Mississippi wanted to bury the body before anybody got a good look at it and when Mobley managed to get it back to Chicago the coffin was nailed shut. But she got it opened and then describes what it was she saw in simple and graphic details, emphasizing not the horrors but the child she remembered (e.g., she smiles as she talks about how she thought Emmett's teeth were the most beautiful things she had ever seen and then remembering seeing only two of them and wondering where the rest of them were). It is only after Beauchamp lets her tell of the pivotal point where she decides to leave the casket open at the funeral so the world can see what was done to her son in Mississippi that we go from a school photograph of a smiling Emmett Till to the wrecked ruin of his face and head. This is the most disturbing image from the Civil Rights movement, but that is exactly why it is the most important one and why its publication in "Jet" was an important catalyst. You really cannot tell the story unless you look at the photograph, and teachers who want to show this documentary to their students should be prepared to defend their decision.
In addition to Mobley, it is Moses Wright, who stood up in court and pointed to the two white men who came and took away Till (there is a photograph of the dramatic moment), who stands out here. But it strikes me that somebody who is not mentioned by name, William Bradford Huie, played a key role as well. A journalist and author ("The Americanization of Emily," "The Klansman"), Huie was often criticized by mainstream journalists for using his checkbook to get stories. But it was Huie who paid the murderers to confess in a national publication five months later. A follow up story revealed that the businesses of Milam and Bryant had gone under because they were ostracized by local whites. I am sure this did not happen because of the murders, which clearly the jury representing the town supported, but because of the published confession that took away the thin veneer provided by the not guilty verdict.
This documentary received a lot of publicity because it fueled an effort to reopen the case. The U.S. Department of Justice did reopen the case to determine whether others in addition to Milam and Bryant were involved. The F.B.I. and Mississippi officials worked on a joint investigation, and while Till's body was exhumed so an official autopsy could be performed, the federal investigation was closed in March of this year. Consequently, justice in this case will not result in anybody ending up in jail, but rather with preserving the testimony of these witnesses for posterity (Till's mother died after the documentary was completed). Carolyn Bryant (now Donham after her fourth husband) is still alive and living in Greenville Mississippi. Signs in her front yard warn that uninvited visitors will be prosecuted, an apparent indication that she believes the law in Mississippi continues to protect her a lot more than it ever did Emmett Till.
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In August 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley of Chicago sent her only child, 14 year-old Emmett Louis Till, to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta.Little did she know that only 8 days later, Emmett would be abducted from his Great-Uncles home, brutally beaten and murdered by one of the oldest Southern taboos: whistling at a white woman in public.The murderers were soon arrested but later acquitted of murder by an all-white, all-male jury.Keith Beauchamp's groundbreaking film is the result of a 10-year journey to uncover the truth behind the nightmarish murder of an innocent African-American teenager. Emmetts brutal murder - and his familys brave actions in the horrifying aftermath- served as a major impetus for America's civil rights movement and led to Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make decisions that changed the course of history.Discover for yourself why the Chicago Tribune wrote, "If you dont believe film can change the world, you havent seen The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."