Judge Ryan Keefer first encountered this film at a festival whose main theme was injustice. Truer words could not have been said.
The Civil Rights Movement didn't just start with Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. It started with Emmett Till.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Emmett Till, here are the events surrounding the story: Emmett Till is sent by his mother to live with his extended family in Mississippi. Till receives some friendly words of warning about segregation in the South, along with the things to do and not to do or say when down there. In a country store in Money, Mississippi, he whistles at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, an act that is seemingly innocuous, but when a young black man does it to a older white woman in 1950s Mississippi, it crosses many social and racial lines. Bryant's husband Roy, along with a friend, J.W. Milam, came to the house of Till's Uncle Moses demanding to see Emmett. They went into the house and took Emmett in the middle of the night, where he was never seen alive again. His body was found days later, wrapped in barbed wire and attached to a large industrial fan, savagely beaten until severely disfigured, with his tongue and genitals cut off of his body.
The local law authorities in Mississippi wanted to implement a quick burial for Till's body, but Till's mother Mamie fought this procedure and had the body returned home to Chicago for a proper funeral service, including an open casket for all to see how her boy was brutalized. Bryant and Milam were arrested in the case and a murder trial was convened, but the "trail" was little more than going through the legal motions for all involved, along with some outrageous unsubstantiated accusations—like Mamie trying to exploit her son for insurance money or Emmett's excessive flirting perhaps being the reason for his death. Despite the hope that Till's family had for justice, Moses and Mamie were constantly threatened, and Mamie's mother received threats in Chicago too. An acquittal seemed a foregone conclusion, and after 45 minutes of deliberation, was subsequently handed down, after the jury drank some soda and tried to agree on how to deliver the verdict. A subsequent Grand Jury investigation into kidnapping charges for Bryant and Milam brought no indictment, and several months later, the two sold their story (and their confession) to a magazine for several thousand dollars. And up until recently, the case of the murder of Emmett Till seemed to have been closed with no resolution or closure in sight. When Keith Beauchamp met Mamie in 1995, he vowed to help bring her son's killers back to justice, and despite Mamie's 2003 death, the Justice Department has reopened the case of the murder of Emmett Till, in large part because of Beauchamp's documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The film, much like Errol Morris' excellent The Thin Blue Line has inspired action, the highest compliment a film could possibly garner.
Beauchamp does an excellent job of providing the details of the case, and at the heart of the film (and moreover the cause) is Emmett's mother Mamie. She presents a level of strength, courage, and determination that few could ever fathom. She buried her son when he was young, and decided to help use the gruesomeness of his death to her advantage. In turn, she helped inspire a movement that was larger than anyone could have suggested. Mamie's descriptions of seeing her son and describing the smell of his body after getting him back to Chicago is more than anyone could realistically expect from a mother to discuss. She does it matter of factly, perhaps to further ingrain in the viewer's mind just how senseless her son's murder was.
When I was initially writing my opinion of the film, I wrote that if there was something that detracted from fully appreciating the film, it was the portrayal of Beauchamp's film as a beacon of change and influence. When compared to Morris' film, where there was a definite set of facts portrayed quite effectively from every point of view, Beauchamp's film didn't seem to carry some of that same kind of effectiveness for me. I thought I had a working knowledge of the facts of the case, but like many other people, I barely knew any part of the story. After learning more than just a superficial view of the facts of the case, it's clear that Beauchamp's film is just as effective. In his commentary track, Beauchamp discusses the effort to bring the film to life, along with some information that wasn't in the film (Mrs. Bryant had an unserved arrest warrant at the time of Till's disappearance, and that there were possibly as many as 14 people involved in the crime), and some postscripts to the people and events in the film. It's a superb complement to the film and is very welcome. There's a roundtable discussion about the case and the subsequent impacts in society in various different levels, but to make it a more complete package, I would have provided a lot more Web and educational material on the case, as this regrettable moment in history should have a lot more coverage attached to it now than it does.
The film is an excellent example of powerful documentary filmmaking and should be mandatory viewing in today's schools both for the power of one person, along with keeping Emmett Till in the landscape of civil rights, even as history leaves it in the rear view mirror. The Untold Story of Emmett Till is an amazing experience.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Keith Beauchamp
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