February 28, 2006
Review: The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
The civil rights movement's most famous episodes in the 1950s were probably the small rebellion of Rosa Parks, and of course the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
But whereas those moments were inspirational and uplifting in some ways, the tragic story of the murder of Emmett Till is an equally horrifying counterpoint.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till due to be released today on DVD, is a fantastic little film. At about 70 minutes, it is short, but covers the whole narrative surrounding Emmett Till's death with abundant detail. Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, and is described by his relatives as carefree, and a practical joker, never taking anything seriously and always trying to play pranks on his cousins. In 1955, he went to visit relatives in Mississippi. While there, he famously whistled at a white woman as she was exiting a general store in Money, Mississippi. That night two men came and took him from his relatives' home. Three days later his mutilated body was found chained to a cotton gin motor in the Tallahatchie River.
Till's murder catalyzed the civil rights movement because his mother had a public funeral for him back in Chicago with an open casket, allowing all to see the violence visited upon her son. This public display caused only insult to be added to injury when the perpetrators were put on trial in Mississippi and it soon became clear that it was really a farce.
Keith Beauchamp, the director, makes excellent use of both original interviews with many of Till's relatives -- including his mother, who died in early 2003 -- and archival footage from the funeral, the trial, and the news coverage of it at the time. The soundtrack is moving, and there is a matter-of-factness to much of the interviews; that is to say, there is little in the way of melodrama. Till's mother does not need to resort to hysterics. Her calm demeanor as she describes her feelings upon seeing her son's tortured body is all the more powerful for its lack of dramatic embellishment. I thought the most moving portions were the stories of Till's cousins, who were his age, boys like him, but who are now in their sixties.
I grew up in Mississippi, a fact which I might not have mentioned on this blog before. There was a time in high school, when doing research into Mississippi history and the civil rights movement, that it dawned on me that until a few years before my birth, Mississippi had really been something akin to a police state for much of its black population. When one reads about the Sovereignty Commission -- basically a state-level secret police and intelligence organization -- one is left with indelible comparisons to the worst of repugnant regimes in other parts of the world. I say all this with no small bit of regret. It's hard to realize the dark side of the place that one has known as home all one's life. Mississppi has so many positives. Some of the nicest people I've ever met live there, both black and white. It has a history to rival nearly any other part of the country: key events in the civil rights movement, the development of blues, Grant's Vicksburg campaign, arguably more important than Gettysburg, and a long history of interaction between the French, Spanish, and Indians to boot. This underside of its story must be told, though, and films like this are among the better ways to do so.
I have but two critiques: the film uses a few brief segments of an interview with Al Sharpton. They are well done, and Sharpton does a fine job. But I think he's an inherently polarizing character in today's politics. I'm not sure that the story gains anything from his inclusion. If getting the story out is the goal, I'm not sure Sharpton makes that any easier. There are plenty of Mississippian civil rights leaders who do equally well: Charles Evers is one. So I might not have included Sharpton. Second, the film has a bit of a harsh transition from telling the story of Till to showing how the film itself played a role in reopening the Till case. One moment we are learning that Till's mother has died; the next we are watching City Council proceedings in New York City of all places, where a councilman is praising Till's relatives. It seemed a bit of a non-sequitur and needed more fleshing out. All in all, this was an excellent production though, and those are mere quibbles.
A natural prejudice leads a man to scorn anybody who has been his inferior, long after he has become his equal; the real inequality, due to fortune or the law, is always followed by an imagined inequality rooted in mores; but with the ancients, this secondary effect of slavery had a time limit, for the freedman was so completely like the man born free that it was soon impossible to distinguish between them.Mississippi might as well be a case study for what that wise man described.
In antiquity the most difficult thing was to change the law; in the modern world, the hard thing is to alter mores, and our difficulty begins where theirs ended.
This is because in the modern world the insubstantial and ephemeral fact of servitude is most fatally combined with the physical and permanent fact of difference in race. Memories of slavery disgrace the race, and race perpetuates memories of slavery.
This is a winning film and will be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about an important event in the history of the civil rights movement. I highly recommend it.
Thanks to Special Ops Media for sending me a copy to review.
UPDATE: The Amazon link above should be for the film, but it is acting a little funny. If it is showing a different work, here's another link.
Posted by Chester at February 28, 2006 12:29 AM
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