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.