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TH!INKFilm presents
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2005)

"She somewhere found the strength to say, 'I'll bear my pain to save some other mother.'"
- Rev. Al Sharpton, on Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 27, 2006

Director: Keith A. Beauchamp

MPAA Rating: PG
Run Time: 01h:08m:13s
Release Date: February 28, 2006
UPC: 821575547246
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB-B C+

DVD Review

It is a crime so unimaginably vile that the mere thought of it is enough to make you want to vomit, or to cry, or both. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago, went to Money, Mississippi, for a summer job picking cotton. He had the temerity to whistle at a white woman, and in the most sickening sort of vigilantism, that night he was dragged from his bed, then brutalized and killed by a posse of local whites. They poked out an eye, ripped off an ear, shot him through the head, cut off his genitals, then tied his body to a cotton gin with razor wire and dumped his remains in a river. In its time, the case became the ultimate expression of the injustices perpetrated every day against African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and, much like Rosa Parks did, Emmett Till became a symbol for the rights denied to citizens, evidence of the chasm between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution in theory and the workings of life for most American blacks in practice.

This documentary is a deliberate, careful, thorough history of the Till case, functioning almost like a prosecutor's brief. The central figure in many respects is Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who recalls the happy early memories of her late son, and talks through the facts of his murder with a precision that's startling for its calmness. She doesn't shy away from any of the worst things they did to her boy—she's emotional, but she's not overwhelmed, the way most of us would be, and the way she tells this will make you weep. Also interviewed are Emmett's friends and other members of his family, recalling a cheerful young man so brutally snuffed out—director Kenneth Beauchamp gets them to walk us through just how all of this happened, and you can see that the fear is still palpable, for some of the interviewees won't allow their faces to be seen on camera. And even after Emmett's death, the Mississippi authorities were cavalier about the Till family, at first refusing to send the body to Chicago for burial, and then finally doing so, but only in a sealed coffin that they insisted not be opened.

Emmett's mother would have none of this—she insisted that the undertaker remove the body from the box in which it arrived, and was unwavering: "Oh, yes, we're going to open the casket." The film includes a few snapshots of Emmett's mutilated body, and you can only think: what kind of animal does this? What obscene level of hate makes this possible? It's a shaming moment for America, but even with something as unthinkably horrific as this, some good can come, for the Till case spurred on the civil rights movement and its necessary strides during the following years.

Almost as nauseous as the murder itself was the summary acquittal of the two men charged with the crime, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. The verdict seems to have been a foregone conclusion—local officials blame the NAACP for stirring up troubles, but it wasn't they who killed Emmett Till. Still, there are many moments of bravery, especially from Moses Wright, in whose house Emmett was staying that summer. He boldly identifies the two defendants as the ones who dragged Emmett from his bed in the middle of the night, and for Wright to do so was an act of extraordinary bravery. The unconscionable result of the trial was made that much more insulting in 1956, when, with the rules against double jeopardy on their side, in a magazine article Bryant and Milam owned up to the crime.

The film has a brief coda, with members of the New York City Council promising to take some action on the case, in 2004; it's so far after the fact, and so geographically removed, though, that it seems like a modest symbolic gesture at best. Beauchamp also includes reports of the Federal government getting involved after all these decades with the prosecution, but again, it feels like the horses have left the barn. My only other quibble would be with the word "untold" in the title of the film—Till's story is a necessary one, and I don't know that it ever has been or will be lost to history. Goodness knows it shouldn't be.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: An adequate if unremarkable transfer, with the contrast a little too high at times.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Generally clear, though occasionally there's a fair amount of static.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring I Love Your Work, Protocols of Zion, Born Into Brothels
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Keith Beauchamp
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The director's commentary track is an account of his odyssey over nearly a decade getting this movie made—it took years to get some of Emmett Till's friends and family to agree to participate in the project, and Beauchamp mournfully reports that Emmett's mother died before the film was completed. (It's dedicated to her.) Beauchamp also contributes liner notes.

There are a few brief panels explaining the work of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard, and a roundtable discussion (26m:02s) about the Till case, its impact and its legacy—the most recognizable participant is Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

An affecting account of one of the most horrific crimes ever perpetrated against an American, and a vital document for understanding the evolution of and necessity for the civil rights movement.


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