On a night in August fifty years ago, two white men in Money, Mississippi, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, brought a pistol to the door of a black man named Mose Wright and demanded to search his beds for “the fat boy from Chicago.” This was Wright’s visiting grandnephew, 14-year-old Emmett Till, who a few days earlier had thought it funny to whistle at Bryant’s wife. Now, to correct the boy’s ignorance of Southern ways, Bryant and Milam yanked him from Wright’s house, drove him to a deserted spot, beat and gouged and hacked and shot him and wrapped the corpse in barbed wire and dumped it into the Tallahatchie River.
We have long known these facts. The killers confessed them readily enough, for a fee, to Look magazine, soon after an all-white jury had acquitted them of murder–a verdict that was delayed only long enough for the jurors to enjoy a soda pop. But it has taken until now for us to hear from two others who were tucked into Wright’s beds on that night in 1955: Till’s cousins, who saw the abduction. It has taken until now to learn about possible accomplices and accessories to the murder, who are still alive and might be open to prosecution.
For this information, we can thank Keith Beauchamp, who in 1996 began to research the death of Emmett Till with the intention of making a documentary. By 2002 he was taking a rough cut to selected audiences and lobbying officials to reopen the case. The Justice Department did just that in May 2004, acting in part on evidence that Beauchamp had uncovered. For those who would like to see this evidence for themselves, and who have not been able to catch the documentary at its handful of special screenings, Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is now going into theatrical release with a run at New York’s Film Forum, starting August 17.
Of the important documentaries being released this month, Till registers farthest to the left on the raw-to-cooked scale. You watch it for what it tells, not how it does the telling; for what it might accomplish in the world, not for what it is. That’s plenty, when you consider the vast impact that Till’s lynching had in its time. When you consider that its time is still now–that many of the principals are alive, and that Till today would be all of 64–the significance of Beauchamp’s achievement speaks for itself.
And yet it seems to me that The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is two movies–one an investigative report, the other a portrait–and that the second of them might have been more fully developed. This latter picture could have told us much more about Till’s mother, Mamie Till- Mobley, who cooperated with Beauchamp until her death in 2003 and who emerges as the most compelling figure of his documentary, or perhaps of all this year’s releases combined.
Gray-haired and plump, she sits on her living-room sofa and patiently inventories the horrors she saw when she insisted that the undertaker open her son’s coffin. Her voice neither trembles nor fades as she details the wounds; she speaks with the care and clarity of an old-style high school English teacher. Once or twice, perhaps, she looks away from the camera; but then she recovers, as she explains how she instructed the undertaker to leave the coffin open for the funeral. Although a photograph proves that at one point her legs gave out, archival footage shows that she also was able to stand firm, speaking in the same calm tone that she would later use with Beauchamp. At a distance of fifty years, you still hear the resolve she brought to the task she imposed on herself: to make a Mississippi sheriff give up her son’s corpse; to force herself to study the body; and then to put the mangled, rotting thing on view, so that her private grief might be changed into a public purpose.
Where on earth did Mamie Till- Mobley come from? How did she become so strong? What did she do with that strength in the many years after Till’s death? I wish Beauchamp had provided some answers. The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till demands your attention for its research into an infamous and highly consequential crime; but the great mystery it calls up is not the murder of the boy but the character of his mother.
Better cooked than Beauchamp’s film–more thoughtfully put together, but still a document more than a documentary–is the indispensable and historic Winter Soldier, which is being re-released after going virtually unseen for many years. Shot and edited on a patched-up budget by the Winterfilm Collective, a volunteer group of eighteen independent, New York-based filmmakers, this 1972 feature is the only audiovisual record of the Winter Soldier Investigation: three days of eyewitness and confessional testimony about US atrocities in Vietnam, organized in early 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
You will recall that during the 2004 electoral campaign, John Kerry’s enemies made much of his participation in this event, which they described as fraudulent. Although Kerry, when questioned, replied quietly that the veterans’ accounts had proved to be true, it was easy enough for his opponents to make the lie stick. Many writers and camera crews had attended the conference, held in Detroit at a Howard Johnson’s motel; but the major news organizations chose not to report the evidence that was presented, nor did any national broadcaster subsequently agree to show Winter Soldier. Apart from a brief flurry of screenings in Manhattan, at Cinema 2 and the Whitney Museum, and an airing on New York’s PBS affiliate, Winter Soldier and its testimony were effectively buried.
I don’t imagine the picture would have changed the outcome of the election, had it re-emerged a year ago instead of now. But I believe most people know the face of truth when they see it, and that good filmmakers can show that face–so it’s too bad that voters in 2004 didn’t have a chance to see Rusty Sachs, Scott Camil, Kenneth Campbell and all the others, including (very briefly, in a backup role) John Kerry. It’s not just that people would have recognized through them the awful, unchallengeable reality of crimes committed against innumerable civilians–committed as standard operating procedure, as the witnesses emphasized, and recalled here in sometimes sickening detail. Just as important, Americans would have heard the grief in the veterans’ voices and seen their tears, which these men for so long had thought must not be shed.
Winter Soldier is the first release of Milliarium Zero, a company honorably established by Milestone Films to distribute works of “strong political and social content.” In New York, the picture may be seen at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, where it is part of a weeklong tribute to Milestone Films, August 12-18.
With Daniel Gordon’s made-for-BBC documentary A State of Mind, we get to something fully cooked, with fine cinematography, smooth editing, a comprehensive script and an authoritative-sounding voiceover. Not that you’ll notice. Gordon’s subject matter is so astonishing that you will simply stare in appalled fascination at the picture, another Film Forum premiere, which opens August 10 (and runs for one week only–hurry!).
The first foreign journalist granted permission to make a film in North Korea, Gordon chose to document preparations for the autumn 2003 Mass Games in the capital of Pyongyang. The word “games” is misleading, since these events (which began in 1946) are actually patriotic pageants featuring live music, enormous, ever-changing pictorial backdrops and elaborate gymnastic displays. The word “mass,” though, is fully appropriate. As many as 100,000 people perform in the shows, which demand months of rigorous group practice. Beyond those 100,000 are the citizens who work up routines without being selected, or who train the performers, organize the events and help manage the audiences–which means that a large percentage of Pyongyang’s 2 million residents devote themselves to mounting these spectacles. Although some 4 million people may see a Mass Game during its run, the show is always presented for the satisfaction of just one viewer–the “Dear General,” Kim Jong Il–who may or may not honor the performers with his presence.
To reveal the effect of the Mass Games on daily life, Gordon spent several months filming two of the gymnasts: 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun. The girls, who are close friends, could scarcely contain their excitement at the possibility of being seen by the Dear General, or their fear that they might falter and disappoint him. Despite injuries and short rations (though not as short as those endured by other North Koreans), they practiced up to ten hours a day, perfecting the sort of exhausting, synchronized group routine that is the essence of the Mass Games. Think of it as a desexualized Busby Berkeley number, in which rows and rows of girls in unison give up their rapt smiles, their outflung limbs, their thrusting buttocks for the glory of thrice-great Kim: “great in ideology, great in leadership and great in aura.”
And we think we have something called “the society of the spectacle”? We don’t know what the term means.
And now, to conclude, a documentary that is a fully realized work of art: Grizzly Man, by Werner Herzog.
The film’s subject, not surprisingly, is Herzog himself, as mirrored in the life and death of a self-invented environmentalist named Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003). For thirteen summers, Treadwell went into the Alaskan wilderness to live among grizzly bears: learning their habits, following their life cycles and (as far as possible) blending in with them. During the off-seasons, he gave free talks about the bears to schoolchildren, managed his own preservation foundation, co-wrote a book about grizzlies and appeared on television talk shows. During his last five summers in Alaska, until the day a bear killed him and a companion, Amie Huguenard, he also videotaped his experiences. The footage he left behind–a hundred hours’ worth, much of it extraordinary–provides the core material for Grizzly Man and permits Herzog to speak of Treadwell as a fellow filmmaker.
He was an actor, too. For the most part, he appears in his videotapes as a lean and bubbly fellow with a blond Prince Valiant haircut and a Mr. Rogers manner of speech. He gives cute names to animals and tells them “I love you.” But as Herzog pieces together Treadwell’s biography, mostly through newly shot interviews, a more driven side of the man emerges. We learn of a history of professional failure, drinking, drug abuse, mythomania and (so far as I can see) deeply conflicted sexuality. By discovering a passion for grizzly bears, Treadwell saved his life–he said so himself. Ultimately, though, he also gave up his life, and Huguenard’s, to a fantasy of nature’s benevolence.
In Treadwell’s tapes, we see an attempt to make a film about wilderness and wildlife. In Herzog’s hands, that same footage becomes a dark, complex film about human nature–or, at least, about the nature of two particular humans.