The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is a painful reminder that reparations still need to be made for what whites have done to blacks in this country; most civil rights groups wouldn’t be able to tell you the nature of what those reparations should be, but Keith A. Beauchamp’s film argues that simply addressing the interracial violence in our past is a good place to start. Emmett Louis Till’s death in 1955 in Mississippi helped spark the Civil Rights movement and remains the most heinous crime committed against a child in this country, and when his mother Mamie Till-Mobley describes in graphic detail to Beachamp what Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam did to her boy on the night of August 28th—how they gauged out his eyes, shot him in the head, cut off his tongue, half of his nose, and sliced his head nearly in two before tying a heavy fan to his neck with barbed wire and throwing him in the Tallahatchie River—you feel the full weight of history grabbing us by the arms and shaking us to our senses.
Beachamp’s aesthetic isn’t pretty (the new footage seems to have been shot on low-grade video and the archival material appears to be third or fourth generation dupes), but neither is the history of this case, from the intimidation of witnesses and members of Emmett’s family during the time of Bryant and Milam’s trial to the revolting behavior of whites in and around the Mississippi courtroom that liberated Emmett’s killers. There’s no shortage of heartbreaking and frightening moments here (the stench of Emmett’s body covering a three-block radius when his coffin was opened for his mother, Mamie recalling the loss of her boy’s beautiful teeth, Bryant slobbering all over his wife shortly after his acquittal), and via the still photographs and archival footage of Mamie righteously demanding answers for her son’s death, the strong-willed woman emerges as an undersung hero of the Civil Rights movement, but Beachamp’s scope seems limited.
Not that the monsters who killed Emmett Till deserve defending, but seeing as Untold Story was more or less created as an incentive to get officials to open his case, Beachamp doesn’t address the deaths of Miliam and Bryant from cancer (in 1980 and 1990, respectively), how they were ostracized by a considerable part of the very white community that freed them when they accepted a $4,000 payday from Look magazine for admitting to the death of Emmett Till, or what kind of reparations can be made in this case to heal this still-open wound. Still, the film is a mirror image of the Emmett Till case in that it’s a work in progress and remains nothing short of a stirring affirmation of cinema’s ability to enact social change and reform.