THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL
Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Keith A.
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 70 Minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2006
“I told the funeral director, if you can’t open the box, I can.”
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is both a bleak history lesson and a continuing cry for justice. Not only does it document the shocking murder that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement, it also served as a catalyst for re-opening the case fifty years after the fact.
Emmett Till was a fourteen year old black kid from Chicago visiting his grandfather in Money, Mississippi in 1955 when he committed the “offense” of whistling at a white woman. That night, he would be snatched from his grandfather’s home by two white men, Roy Bryant (the husband of the woman) and J. W. Milam. Emmett was then brutally beaten, shot, and tied with barbed wire to a 70 pound cotton gin wheel and left in a nearby river.
The crime was unspeakable, but unfortunately, par for the course in the deeply racist and segregated south of the time. The attempts to thwart justice were equally common. It took the amazing courage of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to wake up the sleeping conscience of a nation.
She passed away in 2003, but gave some of her last interviews for director Keith A. Beauchamp for this film. She’s truly a remarkable woman. Two clips in particular stick out in my mind: one is when she describes the last time she saw her son alive as he boarded the train for Mississippi. The second was her recollection of the first time she saw her boy dead.
The law in Mississippi tried to have Emmett buried quickly, and his story along with him, but Mrs. Till-Mobley got officials in Chicago to insure her son’s return. He came back in a sealed box, which the funeral director said he was unauthorized to open. He finally relented to her insistence, and what she saw produced a rippling heartbreak that began with her and would soon sweep a country.
Her description of Emmett’s body and what was done to it was more horrifying than the most graphically violent act I’ve ever seen in a fictional film. It was clear the men who did this to him were lower than the lowest animal. All but two of his teeth were gone. His head had been split with an ax so that his face was no longer connected to the rest of the skull. His tongue had been sliced. One eye was dangling from his socket, and the other was completely gone. The shotgun blast that finally ended his torment left a hole completely through his head.
Then his mother did the most unimaginably courageous thing…she insisted her son’s funeral have an open casket. Despite her pain, anger and humiliation, she knew the world had to see what was done to her boy just for the crime of being black and offending white people.
Photos from the funeral would make Jet magazine, and the trial of Bryant and Milam became a national media event. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the jury took an hour to return an acquittal, with the foreman later bragging they would have come back sooner but they stopped for a break of soda and beer. Two months after the acquittal, Bryant and Milam sold their story, complete with confessions, to Look magazine. Double Jeopardy rules insured they could not be tried again.
Yet from these terrible ashes of injustice and indignity, a movement began that would change history. Long before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X, people of all colors would rally to the call of Emmett Louis Till. The first proposals for anti-lynching legislation would come before Congress, the NAACP became a national force, and most of all, America’s eyes were finally opened to what life was really like for a good percentage of her population.
Now, as mentioned, the case has been re-opened. Bryant and Milam are dead, but it is believed others were also involved in Emmett’s kidnapping and killing. I find myself in agreement with the Reverend Al Sharpton when he proclaims that anyone involved still living should be brought to justice. Even if they’re on their deathbed, they should die a convict.
It was mostly because of this movie that the case came to light again. Fifty years is a long time to wait, and the surviving members of Emmett Louis Till’s family are still waiting. But if some kind of closure can come about as a result, maybe some old wounds that have been open for far too long can begin to heal.
Most of the modern footage is shot on video, with lots of older video clips inserted here and there. The overall effect, as with many documentaries, is a little hodgepodge, but it serves the material, and not requiring real complaint.
The audio is nearly all spoken-word in nature, and as such, the stereo mix is adequate. Not much dynamic range, but none is really required.
There is a solid commentary track with director Keith A. Beauchamp, who talks openly about his experience with the film, the people he interviewed (particularly Mrs. Till-Mobley), and what the case meant to him over the years. There is also a featurette on the impact of the case, a look at the Civil Rights Project of Harvard, and a trailer.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is an unsettling film, but sometimes we need to be unsettled. It’s a thoughtful, sober look at a dark moment in American history that eventually led to a new light. Highly recommended.