In the summer of 1955, chubby 14-year-old Emmett Till left Chicago to visit his uncle and cousins in Money, Miss. It was the boy's first time in the Deep South. During a trip to the grocery store for candy, Till allegedly "whistled" at white shopkeeper Carol Bryant, kicking off one of the most wrenching and wretched examples of racial violence in American history.
Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam decided that the boy's transgression was a capital offense. In the middle of the night the two men, along with several others, kidnapped the boy at gunpoint, took him to a barn and tortured him to death. Three days later his burnt and mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
Though it took some effort, Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, secured the return of her son's body to Chicago. Against the wishes of authorities, Mamie insisted on an open-casket funeral. "I want the world to see what they did to my son," she declared. Thousands of mourners viewed her dead son's dismembered body and gouged-out eye sockets. Photographs of Emmett's bludgeoned face forced America to confront the evils of racial hatred and injustice. Many demanded justice.
The investigation and subsequent trial were a sham, however a textbook example of Jim Crow corruption and sadism. Local shopkeepers raised money to defend the two murderers, while county officials bitterly complained about the NAACP making a fuss about such a minor incident. When Till's mother arrived at the courthouse, little white boys would fire their toy pop guns at her while their fathers laughed and egged them on. Despite the testimony of several witnesses, the jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of murder after less than an hour of deliberation, and the grand jury refused to indict them for the irrefutable crime of kidnapping. Months later, the two men sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000 and proudly confessed their guilt.
Keith Beauchamp's The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is a bare-bones documentary that boasts little style or artistry but profound relevance and importance. Using talking heads, period photos and archival footage, this by-the-book investigation lacks the finesse or insightful probing of more accomplished filmmakers, but benefits from the sheer visceral impact and historical weight of Till's appalling death.
More than just a reiteration of the crimes, Beauchamp succeeds in composing an understanding of black life in the South 50 years ago. Interviews with Mamie Till-Mobley, reporter Dan Wakefield (who covered the trial for The Nation) and Till's cousins vividly draw the viewer in with intimate observations. They paint an indelibly personal portrait, provoking fresh feelings of outrage and injustice.
In particular, Emmett's mother commands the screen with a jaw-dropping account of seeing her son's corpse for the first time. Her quiet and articulate resolve is enough to awe the most jaded viewer. In many ways, the documentary is a celebration of this brave and candid mother, who, in the face of atrocity, maintained unimaginable grace and insight.
Most depressingly, Beauchamp uncovers the probable participation of African-American youths in Till's kidnapping (though not the murder). This revelation and the implication of more than 14 participants five of whom are still alive have led to the federal government reopening the case (and as a result, the filmmaker had to withhold some footage from his film).
Less successful are interviews with Al Sharpton whose appearance seems like a desperate bid to have a recognizable face and shots of New York City council members grandstanding over the issue, oddly inserted at the end of the film.
More about the actual trial also would have helped fill out the film's patchy sense of storytelling. Though racism was undoubtedly behind the final verdict, it would be educational to get a sense of how the prosecutors presented their case and what defense was offered for these men's crimes.
As inelegant as The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is, there's no doubt that Beauchamp's determination to revisit that painful time is heartfelt. It's far too easy to dismiss horrific racial events like these as ancient history. The injustice of Till's terrible murder and his mother's stalwart courage leaves us wondering if our country will ever redeem itself of its worst sins.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m., on Sunday, Feb. 12. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].