We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The horrific death of 14-year-old Emmett Till is not an untold story—at least not as presented by Keith A. Beauchamp’s vivid documentary. But The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till does hold the promise of revelations to come in the 50-year-old matter of the African-American Chicago native who was killed and mutilated for whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss., while visiting relatives. In fact, the film has already been revised once to include news of the Justice Department’s reopening of the case, a development it helped inspire. Most of the central players in this horror—though not everyone who was reportedly involved—are now dead: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who were quickly acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury but admitted to it the next year in a Look article for which they were paid $4,000, and the victim’s outraged mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who helped galvanize the civil-rights movement by insisting that her son not be buried quietly in Mississippi. She also specified that his funeral feature an open casket, so that mourners could be shocked and outraged by the sight of her son’s mangled face. Till-Mobley’s is the film’s most forceful voice, but there are others who contribute significantly to the account, including Till’s cousin, Simon Wright, who notes that the murdered youth “had no sense of danger’’—not unusual in 14-year-old boys but a very dangerous attribute for a black visitor to Jim Crow Mississippi. Dan Wakefield, who covered the trial for The Nation, offers another perspective, and vintage footage—notably the comments of a local sheriff who blames everything on the NAACP—plunges the viewer into the era’s white-racist mindset. Missteps include the presence of Al Sharpton, whose milder current image hasn’t erased his previous demagoguery, and Till-Mobley’s Jesus-damaged closing remarks that her son had been chosen for martyrdom by God. But then, those aren’t really the final words. With the possibility that some conspirators in Till’s slaying will be brought to justice, Beauchamp may yet return with a film that does divulge an untold story. —Mark Jenkins