Bravery Trumps Bigotry

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

A documentary directed by Keith Beauchamp. Screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, May 22, 7:30 p.m.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

While Rosa Parks’s name and story resonates with household-name familiarity, the tragic tale and social significance of Emmett Till continue to be not as widely known as they should be. Till was a slightly mischievous (i.e., normal teenaged) Chicagoan 14-year-old who, while visiting his uncle in Mississippi in 1955, wolf-whistled at a woman named Carolyn Bryant. A few nights later, her husband and a friend arrived and snatched away young Till, to “talk to him.” His body was later discovered in a river, brutally tortured, castrated, and with a bullet through his head.

In his compelling documentary, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s patient, un-hysterical recounting of the story is all the more powerful for its restraint and close attention to details. He went straight to the sources, including interviews with Till’s friends and his mother, who died in 2003. Her bravery in allowing an open casket funeral — to show the world the actual results of brutality born of murderous bigotry — and further seeking justice from her son’s death turned the murder into a cornerstone of the slowly growing civil rights movement. As Rev. Al Sharpton explained in the film, her gesture was as if to say, “‘I’ll bear my pain to save some other mother from having to go through it.’” Predictably, the trial was a sham and the perpetrators were found not guilty, although they later confessed to the crimes to Look magazine.

Beauchamp’s fine exploratory work was impressive enough to inspire a re-opening of the investigation, which may help give Till much more than footnote status in history books.

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