The subject matter of certain documentaries is so significant that it far outweighs artistic considerations, and that is certainly the case in Keith Beauchamp's The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Till. Films featuring "talking heads" often become tedious, but not so here -- the 70 minutes fly by, as we witness Till's mother and others chronicle the horror of Till's murder and the extreme injustice of the times. What would be an ordinary documentary becomes a special "must see" event because the subject is so important, and it allows us to hear from the people who know the story first hand.
Going beyond a mere 50th anniversary commemoration of the tragic event, Beauchamp's film uncovers additional evidence and becomes both a suitable memorial as well as a call to action. In fact, the final few moments of CNN videotape have been added since the film's initial release since the powerful document literally moved the Federal Judicial system to re-open the Emmet Till case, illustrating the power of Beauchamp's documentary. Pictures have always proved more effective than mere words, as was the case in August, 1955 when Mamie Till-Mobley (Till's mother) insisted on an open casket for the nation to witness the brutal mutilation of her 14-year old son. Imagine her courage. Yet she knew that her son must not die in vain--that this must not be exclusively about her personal grief. She says as much near the end of the documentary when talking about how she had a vision, assuring her that Emmet was not just hers but was fulfilling a greater purpose.
In the past few months, we've lost two giant icons from the Civil Rights era with the passing of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. But they both looked to Mamie Till-Mobley for inspiration, and she is often overlooked when citing the key leaders in the movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott marks the first successful organized action of the Civil Rights Movement; however, it might not have happened without Emmet Till's inadvertent sacrifice four months earlier. Asked why she didn't move to the back of the bus to avoid arrest, Rosa Parks stated that she was thinking of Emmet Till. The brutal funeral photographs may have shocked white Americans, but it galvanized a few to take action.
It's difficult to break away from the gruesomeness of the murder details, and these are graphically illustrated in the documentary than previously released--in words and in disturbing photographs that go beyond what special effects technicians create for the latest teen slasher flick. But such a shock is necessary to drive people to action, so these are a necessary component; otherwise, this could have been another re-telling of a story that many of us have previously seen in Eyes on the Prize and other Civil Rights documentaries.
What Beauchamp accomplishes through his various interviews and embellishes with archive footage is a sequential narrative of events that fills in the cracks and paints a more complete picture of 1950's style racism in Mississippi. One cousin recalls how he was coached on how to behave properly to avoid trouble but wasn't sure that Emmet had been told--a fatal omission for an outgoing African American Chicago boy, who wasn't used to being deferential and shuffling his feet. His ignorance about Negro life in Mississippi cost him at the little Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi. After first blundering by touching Mrs. Bryant's hand when handing her some change, Till sealed his doom when he wolf-whistled at her outside the store.
Mrs. Bryant's husband Roy and his friend J.W. Milam decided that Till's action was a no brainer call for lynching, so they took the boy from his great-uncle's house at 2:30 A.M., killed and mutilated him beyond recognition, tied his body to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. You can imagine the sights and odors when Till's body is recovered three days later, and the living witnesses describe this to great effect. Hindsight underscores the unspoken motives of Mississippi locals who want to bury Till's body quickly; after all, it's just another of some 2,000 similar lynchings and body dumps in the Delta swamps and bayous. But Mamie Till-Mobley is able to get Chicago authorities to demand the return of her son's body, and the event becomes a touchstone for the Movement.
The trial footage is especially telling, and justice is impossible to even wish for--like something straight from To Kill a Mockingbird. Except this is too real, and highly surreal that such a mockery could have recently occurred in the United States. Body language doesn't lie, especially when it's expressing overt racism. The court is overflowing, and we see fathers perched in windows with their sons; Mrs. Till-Mobley reveals her fears at the time, as these men were pretending to shoot her right in front of their children.
More than one interviewee cites the highlight of the trial is when Moses Wright stands and points his finger directly at the two murderers. This is something that just wasn't done in Mississippi--a black man "forgetting his place" and accusing a white man translated into a virtual lynching sentence. That could have been Wright's fate had he not fled for Chicago after the trial. Archive footage with him is also memorable and gripping; indeed, his courageous actions certainly made their mark on the surviving relatives shown in the film. None of the principals planned to be Civil Rights crusaders, but when tragedy hit the family, they rose to the occasion and helped change many hearts.
Unfortunately, Mamie Till-Mobley died before the film's release, so she never saw the Justice Department reopen her son's case (at least in this world). Somehow, I don't think she minds--her demeanor during her interviews indicates that she's come to terms with Emmet Till's death, already recognizing that her young son profoundly changed the world. For the historical record, we can now add Beauchamp's compelling documentary that will now certainly grant Emmet Till, Mamie Till-Mobley, and Moses Wright their rightful place as Civil Rights champions for all time. But this also serves as a reminder that we have a lot of work ahead. Despite progress in overcoming overt racism, subtler expressions of prejudice continue and hate crimes still make headlines--so much so that we cannot become satisfied "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."