Film spurred reopening of notorious Till case

Posted: December 02, 2005

During the long, hot summer of 1955 in the hamlet of Money, Miss., Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Within hours the 14-year-old African American youth from Chicago was kidnapped from his grandfather's house and tortured to death, face severed from his skull by the white woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and Bryant's half-brother, J.W. Milam.

Though an all-white jury acquitted them of Till's murder, within two months Bryant and Milam, protected by the law of double jeopardy, sold their confession to Look magazine for $4,000.

Fifty years later, in large part due to Keith Beauchamp's potent and searing chronicle, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, the federal government has reopened the case. Although Bryant and Milam are dead, several allegedly involved in the kidnapping are still alive, including Carolyn Bryant.

Armed with limited means and an infinite sense of social justice, Beauchamp accomplishes an extraordinary achievement. His straightforward narrative of Till's youth and lethal encounter places it in the context of Jim Crow politics. Was it only 50 years ago that a Mississippi sheriff said on national television: "We didn't have any problem until our niggers went up North and talked to the NAACP and came back down here and made trouble"?

The heroine of this story is the eloquent Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett's mother, who recalls her fight to have an open-casket funeral for her son. She correctly predicted that the sight of his mutilated face with its gouged-out eye sockets and torn-off ear would shame racists. What this supremely poised woman could not predict is that the photographs of the martyred Till would ignite the nascent civil rights movement.

In the end, Till-Mobley (who died in 2003) believed that her son gave his life so that others could live. Her faith that justice would be done turns Till's tragedy into a triumph.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

*** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Keith A. Beauchamp. With Mamie Till-Mobley.

Running time: 1 hour, 10 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (descriptions and photographs of mutilated face and body)

Playing at: UA RiverView

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