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.