Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp has produced a documentary about a drama that has haunted American society for the last 50 years. On August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago, was lynched in the small southern town of Money, Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a young white woman. His gruesome killing helped spark the civil rights movement in the United States. But the boy's killers went unpunished. Now, fifty years later, Beauchamp's documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till", retells the horrific story. The film has been credited with providing the impetus for the recent reopening of the 50-year-old case by the U.S. Justice Department.
The power of Keith Beauchamp's documentary lies in original film footage of Emmett from the time he was a little boy, and its revealing first-person testimonials of eyewitnesses, friends and family, including Emmett's older cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker. In the film, he recalls the day he was setting out to travel with young Emmett from Chicago to Mississippi for a vacation.
"They always kind of prepped you before going to Mississippi," he says. "They always made you aware of what could happen and what the South was like. And so, I was very much aware of what could happen while we were in Mississippi. And I don't know if Emmett was told or not."
Emmett had a reputation of being funny and rather cocky. For people who knew him it came as no surprise that he whistled at a young white woman. The problem was that he did this in a little southern town where young black men just did not approach white women. Simeon Wright, a relative who was with Emmett at that moment, recalls that when Emmett whistled he shocked everybody in the group. "And when we saw their reaction we got scared. We all panicked, including Emmett", says Simeon Wright. "We jumped in the car and when we got in the car the car wasn't moving fast enough."
News traveled fast, though. A neighbor says that there were whispers in the African-American community that Emmett's life was in danger.
"We had heard these colored men saying they was going to 'get it.' That's how we knew to go back to tell Moe Wright (Emmett's grand uncle) to take the boy to the train station (to send him back to Chicago.) He didn't do it."
A few days later, two armed white men came into Moe Wright's home in the middle of the night and abducted Emmett. The boy was found dead the next day, lynched. His face was terribly deformed. Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, remembers how she went to Mississsipi to get her son's remains. Instead, she found a pine box, tightly shut. Her son's body was in it. Sheriff Shreider wanted an immediate burial because he knew it wouldn't be good for the state of Mississippi for people to see what had happened to Emmett Till.
Mamie Till - Mobley, recalls how she rallied Chicago officials to demand the return of her son's remains to Chicago. When she finally saw the body, it was unrecognizable.
"I saw his tongue had been choked out and it was lying down on his chin", she remembers. "I saw that his eye was out and it was lying about midway into cheek. I looked at this eye and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. I looked at his teeth because I took so much pride in his teeth and I only saw two. Where are the rest of them? They had just been knocked out. Mr Rainer [ the funeral director] wanted to know, was I going to have the casket opened. I said 'Oh yes! We're going to open the casket.' He said 'Well, Ms. Bradley, do you want me to do something for the face? You want me to try to fix it up?' I said 'No! Let the people see what they'll see! I want the world to see this because there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like.'"
Keith Beauchamp's documentary shows thousands of people at Emmett Till's funeral lining up at the open casket to pay their respects…. wailing as they viewed his disfigured body.
The much-publicized funeral led to the trial the two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who were accused of abducting and murdering Emmett. The case was heard in a Mississippi court, and an all-white male jury acquitted the defendants. Since then, both men have passed away and were never brought to justice. But in his nine-year-long investigation of the case, director Beauchamp found that 14 people had been involved in Emmett Till's slaying, and that five of them are still alive.
The documentary presents interviews with eyewitnesses, such as Willie Reed, who saw Emmett's murderers. "As I was out walking, I saw a green 1955 Chevrolet truck", he says. "There was, ah…Two-Tight Collin, Herbert and I'm sure it was Emmett Till and Milam and Bryant it was in there….you don't forget. These things I'll never forget."
On May 10, 2004, the United States Justice Department reopened the investigation into the murder of Emmett Louis Till, citing Keith Beauchamp's film as the main impetus and starting point for the investigation.