On this date 61 years ago, 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed by racist white thugs in Money, Mississippi. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounted this tragic episode in his exceptional 2003 documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, which currently is available for viewing on YouTube. As I wrote in my Variety review:
"Using archival footage, official records and well-shot (by Robert Shepard) contemporary interviews, Nelson fashions an evocative portrait of a life and death in a not-long-ago Deep South. While visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County during summer 1955, 14-year-old Till, a black, Chicago-born youngster, was brutally beaten, then fatally shot, by white racists. His killers, stepbrothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, pursued Till after the precocious youngster made the fatal mistake of whistling at Bryant’s attractive wife in a grocery store. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but later agreed — in return for a hefty fee — to admit their guilt in a Look magazine interview.
"Emmett Till deftly places the tragedy of the youngster’s killing within context of an age when many Southern whites felt entitled to treat blacks any way they pleased, and were antagonistic toward locals or 'outside agitators' who supported integration. In one of several startling TV news clips from the period, an elderly white Mississippian insists that Bryant and Milam were framed as part of a 'Communist plot.'
"Taking their cue from such paranoia, the murderous pair’s defense attorneys shamelessly argued that Till wasn’t really dead, and that the mutilated body found in a local river had been deliberately misidentified by the boy’s widowed mother. The jury — which, Nelson indicates, really didn’t require much exculpatory evidence — warmed to this theory while voting for acquittal.
"Most devastating scenes focus on the discovery of Till’s corpse — which actually was difficult to identify, because the boy’s face had been beaten almost beyond recognition — and Mamie Till’s insistence that her son be displayed in an open coffin during his Chicago funeral service, so that the world would know what had happened to her boy. As hundreds of mourners passed the coffin, narrator Andre Braugher notes, 'One out of every five had to be helped out of the building.'
"[The documentary] persuasively argues that Till’s martyrdom served as an impetus for the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Overall, however, Murder of Emmett Till is more heartbreaking than uplifting, and will leave sympathetic viewers with an anguished sense of moral outrage."
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