- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” a 50th-anniversary reassessment of perhaps the most notorious racial murder case of the 1950s, seems oddly abbreviated at 70 minutes. While much of its testimony, vintage and newly generated, is reliably evocative, compelling and painful, the movie is left dangling in a curious way. Producer-director Keith A. Beauchamp claims some credit for a 2004 Justice Department decision to reopen the case. Until the results of that inquiry are known, the movie is bound to feel tentative and unresolved.

Emmett Till was the only child of a widowed Mississippi-born woman from Chicago, Mamie Carthan Till. Her estranged husband, Louis Till, died while serving with the U.S. Army in Europe in 1945.

Emmett, evidently a happy-go-lucky personality, lived with his mother and maternal grandmother. He had turned 14 in the summer of 1955 and joined a cousin, Wheeler Parker, on a vacation to the rural Mississippi home of a great-uncle, Moses Wright, a sharecropper.

As Mr. Parker recalled in an earlier documentary, the typical day was spent picking cotton in the morning and swimming or larking about in the afternoon. One day, a group of teenagers that included Emmett stopped at a crossroads store operated by a young white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Because the husband was often away on truck-driving jobs, Mrs. Bryant tended the store, backstopped by a sister-in-law, Juanita Milam. The women shared baby-sitting duties with their young children in back rooms. The Bryants also lived on the premises.

At some point, Emmett Till offended Carolyn Bryant with a facetious gesture. According to Mr. Parker in “Untold Story,” it was “the famous wolf whistle.” He remembers it suddenly erupting and sending chills through the other youngsters, who beat a hasty retreat. Mrs. Bryant’s need for satisfaction is still not clear, but word of the episode was in circulation by the time her husband returned a few days later.

Retaliation may have been a stronger motive for her brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, something of a freelance overseer in the local cotton industry. Anyway, he and Roy Bryant, his younger half-brother, paid an intimidating midnight visit to the Wright farm, where they abducted Emmett Till at gunpoint. Over the course of several hours, they threatened and gun-whipped him. Eventually, Milam fired a fatal revolver shot through the boy’s temple.

Acquitted by all-white juries in Sumner and Greenwood, Miss., on charges of murder and kidnapping, respectively, the killers felt safe confessing to reporter William Bradford Huie in the pages of Look magazine several months later for a fee of $4,000. That account, which can be found on Web sites devoted to the Till case, makes for morbidly invaluable reading.

Informed of her son’s abduction, Mrs. Till began rallying support before his body was found, lashed to a large fan in the Tallahatchie River. She emerged as a tower of strength while retrieving his remains in Mississippi and then transporting the body back to Chicago for a funeral that became a pivotal media event in the early stages of the civil rights movement. She refused to have a closed casket, and Emmett Till’s mutilated face proved a massive shock for mourners and then the public at large when Jet magazine published candid photos.

Mrs. Till, who subsequently remarried and was known as Mamie Mobley at the time of her death in 2003, remains the single most stirring witness to brutality and loss, whether encountered in vintage interviews or more recent reflections for Mr. Beauchamp. The stock footage with Mississippi residents of the 1950s also brings back dialects and social patterns that have grown uniquely haunted and poignant.

The movie’s value as a historical refresher is muddled by its inconclusive aspirations as a fishing expedition. The unpunished but admitted killers died several years ago. Surviving but murky accomplices are in Mr. Beauchamp’s sights, but their identities and culpability are impossible to clarify in “Untold Story” alone. From other sources, one gathers that they might be blacks once dependent on J.W. Milam for employment and protection. It remains to be seen if the historical record would profit from putting them in the dock.


TITLE: “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, involving historical accounts of racism and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Keith A. Beauchamp. Editing by David Dessel. Music by Jim Papoulis.

RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thinkfilmcompany.com




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