Fifty years ago this month, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s house in Money, Mississippi, beaten beyond recognition, tortured, murdered, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, all for supposedly whistling at a white woman. A triumph of documentary activism nine years in the making, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till revisits Till’s death and the trial and acquittal of the two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview (both have since died). Marshaling testimony from eyewitnesses, many of whom had never told their stories publicly, director Keith A. Beauchamp invokes a repressive atmosphere of institutional paranoia—in archival footage, Till uncle Mose Wright, who fled Mississippi after the murder, tells an interviewer that he’ll return to testify at the trial “if I live.” Till’s extraordinary mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (who died in 2003), recounts her fight for an open-casket funeral—an event that shocked the world with photos of her son’s misshapen face and gouged-out
eye sockets, jump-starting the civil rights movement.
If the film gets choppy toward the end, it’s for good reason: Beauchamp’s documentary has prompted the federal government to reopen the case (Till’s body was exhumed in June for an autopsy). Because of the ongoing investigation, Beauchamp had to withhold some information from the finished film, but he believes there may have been as many as 14 people involved in the kidnapping, including five still living. Two of these are Carolyn Bryant, the woman Till supposedly whistled at (now 70, she has declined to speak publicly about the case), and Henry Lee Loggins, now 82, a black man who has denied involvement in Till’s death and is seeking an immunity deal from prosecutors. Beauchamp hopes to complete a follow-up documentary once the case is resolved. Stay tuned.