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The murder of Emmett Louis Till and and subsequent sham of a trial for
his murderers were key catalysts for the American civil rights
movements. After the brutal lynching, Mamie Till- Mobley put her son in
an open casket because she wanted "the world to see what they did to my
son." Keith A. Beauchamp's investigative documentary powerfully
captures the moment remarkably well, along with posing questions about
the continuing lack of justice for Till, and by extension, other
victims of racism.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy when he went to Mississippi to visit his uncle Moses Wright and cousins in 1955. A trip to the grocery store led to Emmett wolf-whistling at shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant. Emmett's cousins took him quickly away from the scene fearing that Mrs. Bryant was going to get a gun. Her husband Roy and his friend J.W. Milam decided that Emmett's action was not only a crime, but a capital offense. Till was taken by the two, in the company of others unnamed, from Wright's house in the middle of the night of 28 August. At some point during the night, Till was killed. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River, bound to a cotton bale with barbed wire. After a few days his grossly mutilated body was recovered and after some difficulty, returned to Chicago where it was view in an open casket by thousands of mourners. The graphic photos of Till mutilated corpse shocked much of the nation as much of white America saw images of crimes they were normally able to ignore.
Bryant and Milam were caught and put to trial for murder and kidnapping. Despite the NAACP and black newspapers finding several witnesses for the prosecution an all white, all male jury released them after deliberating for less than one hour. Bryant and Milam then proceeded to confess to author William Bradford Huie in national monthly Look, double jeopardy preventing the confessions from being cause for retrial. All this is recounted in a straightforward manner in the film. The case is not an unfamiliar one for people with any interest in civil rights or the history of the civil rights movement and the film presents only a few new insights into the crime itself. One important and depressing fact uncovered by Beauchamp is the participation of a few African-American youths in the original kidnapping, though not the torturing and killing, of Till. Till's surviving cousins relate and react to the information with a visible distaste of knowing something yet not wanting to accept it.
Where the film truly succeeds is in composing an understanding of conditions in the South at the time. Mamie Till-Mobley recounts how friends and family in Chicago helped prep the Till boys on how to behave in the South, kind of a How to Survive Amongst Violent Racists course. Reporter Dan Wakefield, who covered the trial for The Nation recalls his surprise not so much at the crime, but at how the people of the town didn't see what the big deal was. Virtually everybody involved expresses something approaching awe for Moses Wright, who fingered Bryant and Milam in their trial. This at a time when testifying against a white man was as dangerous as it was ineffective. More than the narrative of the crime, it is these and other similar details that give us the most insight into the case and the conditions of African- Americans in the US South.
The investigation by Mr. Beauchamp has uncovered more participants and led to the Justice Department reopening the case. 50 years is a long time to wait for prosecution given that most figures involved in the case are long dead. It is however, a testament to how profoundly the legacy of Emmett Louis Till resonates today.
We remember the generalized imagery of the pre-integration South, but
as a person pretty well educated in such matters (or so I like to
think) it was still horrifying to be confronted not only by the
viciousness of the lynching and murder of Emmett Till but of the
Mississippi attitudes that resulted in the acquittal of his killers.
Truly, my jaw was open.
Some details received short shrift. Perhaps that is because the film was about the emotional impact of the murder, and the political outcome from it. But if Beauchamp wanted to also cover the "whodunnit" details as he suggested, there were some interesting omissions. Gone was any discussion of the forensic evidence, and although a mention was made that a "confession" was published a year later, why did Beauchamp not tell us what it said? It would have also been interesting to know what the assailants (and the accuser, the woman in the store/wife of a killer) had to say, if anything, before they passed away.
But setting aside what was "missing," what was there is really worth seeing, even if you think you know the story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most people probably know the story of Emmett Till, the black teen
brutally tortured and murdered in 1950's Mississippi for whistling at a
white woman. If not and you have the opportunity to see this
documentary you by all means should as everyone should know this story.
In a nutshell, Till's murder gave impetus to the struggle for equality
and thus is an important part of American history over the last half
century. (The killers were acquitted but later admitted their guilt in
a magazine interview. They have since died. At this writing the Feds
have reopened the case to possibly bring others to justice.)
However, despite the compelling story from a film standpoint this is only a so-so documentary and it leaves the viewer wondering about a few things.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
Some questions raised but not answered:
What actually happened when Emmett went into the Bryants' store? Certainly Mrs. Bryant's testimony at trial was BS. But according to this documentary when she emerged from the store and went to the car after Emmett went in to buy bubblegum all the black kids were saying she was going to the car to get a gun kept there. It was at this point that Emmett wolf-whistled at her. If up until this moment nothing offensive had happened why did they all think she was going for her gun? I'm confused by this.
The documentary states that after the remains arrived in Chicago they were forbidden to open the box. Forbidden by whom? The film doesn't say. (They opened it anyway.)
Another example of sloppy film-making is near the beginning when Emmett is heading to visit the relatives in Mississippi. Mrs. Till (who is very eloquent and well spoken, by the way) describes going to 12th Street Station with Emmett. This is almost certainly a reference to the Illinois Central's Central Station which was located on Chicago's lake front at 12th St. IC was an important rail link between Chicago and the south and Central was their Chicago terminus. Central Station was a very large, rather ugly big city train station with a clock tower and was razed around 1973 or so. The filmmakers illustrate this event by showing what is probably stock footage of some random small town train station. A little research and they could have shown the real thing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To filmteknik (I think that was the commenter's name -- sorry if I got
it wrong). In response to your question about the store and the gun,
I've read several different accounts of the Emmett Till story on the
internet, and not one is exactly the same. There seem to be about 30
different versions of it. They all have the main information correct,
but the details are different. I read at least 5 different versions of
what happened when Emmett was at the store, so maybe we'll never really
know the truth.
I noticed that the brutality of the beating has been played down on the internet too. Most say he was beaten and shot, then tied to a fan with barbed wire. The film went into much more detail. It told of the men splitting his head with an axe, cutting off his penis, breaking out all but two of his teeth, gouging his eye, and more.
There are also different versions of the number of people involved.
The other thing that puzzled me is that one account says that Emmett was killed when he was shot in the head at the river. Yet, the film says he had his head split in two and was also shot in the head. So I don't know what was the actual cause of death.
Whatever the correct story is, we do know that he did something harmless and was kidnapped and brutally murdered for it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Emmett Till, a spirited and happy 14-year-old, left Chicago in 1955 to
visit his relatives in northern Mississippi. He never returned. He made
the terrible mistake of believing he had the right to behave as a human
being, and for that he was ritually slaughtered.
The events in Keith Beauchamp's outstanding film, which took nine years to complete, give a terrifying view of barbaric racism in the American deep south. But we must remind ourselves that this was not some distant 19th-century crime, but one that happened a mere 50 years ago. We also must remind ourselves that this was the rule rather than the isolated exception: Emmett's killing was but one of countless atrocities committed against people who happened to be born with a pigmentation that wasn't white, or pink, or beige.
We are exposed to ghastly pictures of Emmett in death, and he is no longer human: he resembles instead a butchered animal. The two white men responsible cut out his tongue, chopped off his private parts, split his skull in half with an axe, ripped his eyes out, and, perhaps to ensure over-kill, shot him in the head. This was not mere murder, but pure barbarism carried out amid all the trappings of 'civilized' white society. While the Emmett Tills were being routinely lynched and murdered, white folks gathered over genteel servings of mint juleps. They knew what was happening, did nothing, and in fact deemed it somehow part of 'God's design'.
The 'star' of this film is the courageous and noble Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett's mother, who offers profound insights into the grisly details of this case. Rather than bury Emmett quickly in Mississippi, as she was advised to do, Mobley insisted on taking him back to Chicago, and refused to have him 'cosmeticized' in any way by a mortician. She opened his casket to show funeral home visitors the inhuman savagery inflicted on her son. Later, she courageously went to Mississippi for the absurd show trial (the killers were fully exonerated), and she faced a barrage of death threats every step of the way. I'm not sure if they make human beings like Mamie Till-Mobley any more.
This film offers close-ups of great human courage. Medger Evers, who was pre-determined for doom (he was to be assassinated eight years later), served as a catalyst for some semblance of justice, and protected Mamie Till-Mobley at the trial in Sumner, Mississippi.
Emmett's uncle, the valiant Moses Wright, astonishingly identified the killers in the courtroom, something that meant almost certain death for him. He defiantly did it anyway, and left Mississippi shortly after, vowing never to return.
This was a very moving film. I only wish Mamie Till-Mobley had lived long enough to see it. She died of heart and kidney failure in 2002, at the age of 81. When I realized it, I was stunned and saddened. That's how powerful this woman comes through on the screen.
This is a superb and necessary film. Be prepared to be shocked, disturbed and outraged.
The Emmett Till story is really that of an American tragedy. A young man about 14 years old is sent from Chicago to spend summer in Money, Mississippi. He doesn't know how different the South is from Chicago. When he's there, he comes into contact with a white female cashier at the store where he places the money in her hand. Later, he is caught whistling at her. What happens next is horrific to describe. Emmett Till was an only child of a loving mother who had no idea about the tragedy that would occur in taking his life. Not only was Emmett's kidnapping and murder horrific, so is the terrorism that was happening in the South where lynchings, murders, and kidnapping of African American men were happening at an alarming rate. I hope the Emmett Till story and this documentary should be mandatory viewing in every classroom in America to show the hatred, violence, and horror of our history.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2005)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
Strong documentary taking a look at the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was in Mississippi with relatives when he was kidnapped and brutally murdered after whistling at a white woman. The documentary runs 70-minutes and features interviews with Till's mother, many of his friends and cousins who witnessed the kidnapping as well as a journalist who was covering the trial. This is the second documentary I've seen on the Till killing and it always catches me off guard when I see his mother as well as people who witnessed the crime. This type of event was just so shocking and unbelievable that it's really hard to imagine that this took place not so long ago and it's especially recent when you see so many people from its story are still with us. It's always sad when certain bits of history are forgotten by so many and while I'm far from a history expert I do think that certain stuff (Pearl Harbor, 9/11) are such important events that they need to be remembered. This is such a case because it's not only a matter of Civil Rights but it's also the horrifying fact that a 14-year-old could be beaten and tortured so badly and no one ever paid for it. The recounting of the events are still chilling no matter how many times you hear them and especially the stuff with the mother talking about opening the coffin box and seeing how mutilated her son's face and body was. Graphic photos are shown of the body so people should be warned as the images are just ghastly and it's hard to believe that something like that could happen. THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL is a very good documentary taking a look at one of the ugliest crimes in American history. It's certainly worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I would highly recommend seeing this documentary. It's about this boy in 1955 who went to Mississippi to visit his family and he didn't come back alive. All he did was whistle at some woman and it seemed pretty innocent to me. It isn't like he raped her or anything and he didn't know any better. Then a couple of days later he was dead because of it. I was so angry at the men who killed the poor boy. I was even more angry at the killer's wives who stood by and just went along with it. It's a great movie to see because it's so sad and so unfair. No one deserves to be killed for whistling at someone. Emmet's mom stayed strong during the whole ordeal and I was proud of her. She tried so hard and stood up for son when there was so much hate and injustice going on. This is a really moving documentary that makes you think differently on how you treat people.
Tremendously powerful, straightforward documentary about the horrific
lynching of a black teen in 1955 Mississippi for whistling at a white
woman, and the pathetic lack of justice that followed. The incident
itself helped launch the modern civil rights movement.
The film is mostly simple interviews with Till's surviving family and friends, and a few other witnesses to the events , interspersed with some stills and bits of news footage from the time. But a story this strong doesn't need a lot of gloss, and if the film feels almost amateurish at moments, that pales before its heartrending, infuriating, and terrifying story, made real by the memories of those who were there.
The film was responsible for re-opening a federal investigation of the crime, 50 some odd years after the fact, with the hope of finally bring some justice and closure to the noble and brave Till family, and to all African-Americans, for whom this crime represents the worst of America.
An important moment in recent history that should never be forgotten
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