directed by Keith A. Beauchamp
by Alex Jackson For most of us Americans, our view of the pre-civil rights movement South has focused more on the sun than on the storm. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are an established part of our cultural history, the lynching of Emmett Louis Till has more or less floundered in relative obscurity despite being just as if not more essential to racial progress. We understand, in a perfunctory way, that those who led the civil rights movement were heroes, but our understanding of what they were fighting against is diffused and vague. So... Martin Luther King, Jr. made it so that blacks could sit at the front of the bus and use the same water fountains as whites? That is essentially all that this period of history has come to mean in a society that believes children should be protected from the uglier facts of history at the cost of retaining an ignorance of a backyard holocaust. The greatest achievement of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, perhaps its only real achievement, is that it provides some sort of visual record of this time and place. The film works on the most primitive level of documentary cinema: it educates you about something important that has otherwise been grossly underexposed.
Emmett Till was a black fourteen-year-old Chicago native who, in the summer of 1955, went to Money, Mississippi to visit his great uncle. Despite receiving a primer on the subject of bigotry from his mother Mamie Till-Bradley, many of the subtleties of black-white relations in the Deep South escaped young Till. One day he walked into Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market--a convenience store catering largely to the black sharecropper population--to buy chewing gum. In paying owner Carolyn Bryant, he placed money directly into her hand instead of putting it on the table, a major no-no as black men and white women were to never make physical contact. She flinched but said nothing to him. Soon after, as she walked out the store, Till wolf-whistled at her. She did nothing, but Till's cousins were terrified. Later that night, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.M. Milam dragged Till away from his great uncle's house at gunpoint.
Bryant and Milam proceeded to castrate Till, rip out his tongue, beat his face to a pulp, and shoot him in the head before tying him down with a 70-pound cotton gin fan and dropping him into the bayou. His body could only be identified by his signet ring. Mamie had him transported back to Chicago and gave him an open casket funeral so that the world could see what happened to her son. The funeral and subsequent trial, in which Roy Bryant and J.M. Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury (which deliberated for about an hour), made national news. (Bryant and Milam would later confess to the crime in an interview with LOOK MAGAZINE, knowing they were protected from prosecution by double-jeopardy laws.) The North was outraged and southern blacks were fed up. The civil rights movement had just received a jump-start.
Director Keith A. Beauchamp is not a great filmmaker. Like far too many documentarians (and biographers), he coasts on the gravitas of his subject matter without offering a substantial perspective towards it. I can't imagine that audiences will find the film particularly challenging or provocative. Sociologically speaking, it's all pretty perfunctory; Beauchamp never really takes it beyond level one. I was particularly bothered that the movie doesn't delve much into the mindset behind Till's murder. What makes Roy Bryant and J.M. Milam tick? How does a wolf-whistle lead to castration and murder? I honestly didn't expect Beauchamp to include interviews with '50s-era white supremacists, but he could have included the insights of an expert witness or two. We get a few clues, I guess; the armchair sociologist in me always ties racism in with Marxist conflict theory: Milam is momentarily distracted from the task of kidnapping when Till's family members offer him money to leave, while the two men talk to LOOK because they were paid $4000. Bryant and Milam are tempted and motivated by money, and it's the kind of temptation that only ever affects those without any. Buying into these racist myths of white purity and superiority is cheap and makes them feel as though they matter.
Beauchamp justifiably lionizes Till's family and friends for their Christian piety. Mamie's decision to hold an open-casket funeral shows a strong understanding of Christ's dictum of turning the other cheek. Christ talked about being a warrior and using martyrdom as a weapon against injustice--definitely a higher grade of morality than 'eye for an eye.' The closely-related Christian value of pity for one's enemy seems to elude Beauchamp, however. He doesn't mention that a boycott in the aftermath of the Till killing quickly put the Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market out of business, nor does he tell us that both Milam and Bryant died of cancer and that most of the money from their LOOK deal went to Milam. Beauchamp sees his film as activist in nature. He discovers that there might have been a conspiracy involved in Till's death and he wants to see that all involved are brought to justice. This angle doesn't quite work, as there is a dearth of urgency to his cause (I mean, the two principal perpetrators tried for the crime are long gone). He appears to be grasping at straws, fighting mainly his impotence in avenging Till's death. Beauchamp hasn't quite evolved to the level of morality possessed by his subjects--he's still searching for his pound of flesh.
The film is not as static as I dreaded. Though Beauchamp's process basically involves alternating interviews with title cards and archival footage, his archival footage is more than strong enough to carry the film. Money, Mississippi looks like a deadening place to exist. The town is a purgatory of empty streets, depicted here in stark black-and-white. I noted few expressions of pleasure there, nobody is seen smiling or laughing in any of the footage. The blacks of Money have had the life beaten out of them, they're incapable of mustering anger or indignation. When Emmett's great uncle points to his kidnappers in court, an act that could get him killed, you realize that it's borne more out of despair--a belief that he has nothing to lose at that point--than out of reprisal. The white defendents, meanwhile, are like David Lynch's "Angriest Dog in the World"--they're so angry they can hardly move and barely growl. Seeing their preparations for the trial, which they transparently view as a stunt intended to deflect bad publicity, is nothing short of chilling, as is a clearly staged kiss between Bryant and his wife following the not-guilty verdict.
It took Beauchamp nine years to complete The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, and while it's obvious that he put a lot of work into it, I can't shake the feeling that any film made about this subject with these materials would turn out at least as good as this one. Beauchamp may be coasting on the gravitas of his subject matter, but gravitas appears to be sufficient. The film has a strong punch, it gets you angry, and it gets you eager to learn more. That this is attributable more to the relative novelty and power of the subject matter than to the talent and insight of the filmmaker may very well be a case of splitting hairs.
Hardly a film with great technical potential, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is probably about as handsome as it's gonna get on TH!NKFilm's DVD release. Obviously sourced from a DV master, the 1:33:1 full-frame transfer is free of video noise; archival footage has degraded, naturally, and I'm not quite sure that restoring it would've been a wise choice, stylistically speaking: I like the idea of having those circa 1955 interviews stigmatized as history. That all goes double for the accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio.
Beauchamp records a feature-length audio commentary that, despite a visible enthusiasm for and pride in the finished product, can never quite compensate for its innate redundancy. A little too often for my taste Beauchamp resorts to reading his title cards or hissing at the Bryants's "soul kiss of hate." He talks about some of the surprises unearthed in his research and his process of discovery, stuff that's only really of interest to Beauchamp and I'm glad wasn't integrated into the film proper. As much as I like Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, the visible documentarian is threatening to become the genre's most obnoxious fad. Beauchamp also talks about how very little has actually changed in the state of Mississippi, or rather how much has essentially stayed the same, and how some of those involved in the case insisted their identity be obscured by silhouette out of fear of retribution. Now that's something he probably should have put in the film.
The coma-inducing "The Impact of the Emmett Louis Till Case in American History and Today" (26 mins.) is Book TV meets C-SPAN. Andrew Grant-Thomas, research associate for the Harvard Civil Rights Project, moderates a discussion on the social and political context of the Emmett Till case with Jenny Lopez, civil rights attorney for Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy Inc.; Gary Orfield, Director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project; Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School; and Jesse Climenko, Professor of Law and Founding and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. It would be kind to say that this featurette is badly directed: the director is strangely uncomfortable with including all four subjects in the frame simultaneously (hell, we don't see last-on-the-right Hamilton until he's formally introduced by Grant-Thomas) and cuts from medium shots to three shots throughout with little rhyme or reason. If you can overlook the aesthetic barriers, you'll still have to deal with Orfield, who compulsively plays with his socks and swings back and forth between Ogletree and Grant-Thomas even when he's the one talking. That said, this discussion is more substantive than anything found in the feature it supplements as it addresses a lot of the core issues I was interested in. A two-page brochure for the Harvard Civil Rights Project, trailers for The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, I Love Your Work, Protocols of Zion, and Born Into Brothels, and a "Letter from the Director" insert in which Beauchamp refers to "the Creator" round out the platter. Originally published: July 4, 2006.