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American Experience - The Murder of Emmett Till

1 rating: 5.0
A movie directed by Stanley Nelson

The murder at the center of this documentary was an incident of great importance to the birth of the American civil rights movement, a precursor to even the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This American Experience production documents the death of Emmett Till, … see full wiki

Tags: Movies, documentaries, Pbs Documentaries, Emmett Till
Director: Stanley Nelson
Release Date: 2003
MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about American Experience - The Murder of Emmett...

Required viewing for those interested in US racial history

  • May 2, 2007
Pros: Nothing at all wrong with this documentary

Cons: Nothing, however the gruesome pictures of Mr. Till may be to much for some

The Bottom Line: It is gruesome and maddening, but the history is important and the presentation of it is flawless.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie''s plot.

The Murder of Emmett Till, like so many other American Experience documentaries, will kill you with subtlety. It is a story that requires no balance, but the even handed way director Stanley Nelson presents it makes it that much more horrible.

The facts are not in dispute. In 1955, an all male, all white jury acquitted Roy Bryant (whose wife Mr. Till had whistled at) and his half-brother J.W. Milam of killing the 14 year old boy from Chicago. Four months later, Bryant and Milam told Look magazine exactly what they had done. On an August Wednesday in the river delta of Mississippi a group of black men and boys went to Bryant’s store in Money. Here, on his way out with 2 cents worth of gum, Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. She storms off; the seven black men and boys determined that it was time to go. Nothing happened until the following Sunday night. At least Bryant and Milam (there was one more white man reported to be involved but no one has ever said who) dragged Mr. Till from his uncle Moses Wright’s house. Three days later a body, identifiable only by a ring his mother had given him, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River; it had been weighed down by a 75 pound cotton gin fan, secured around the neck with barbed wire.

The murder itself would not have been enough to do what was done.

Mr. Till’s mother, Mamie left Mississippi with her family when she was 2. They moved to Chicago. She was an only child and excelled, eventually landing a civil service job. Her marriage to Emmett’s father ended when he was killed during the Second World War. Her strength and a single decision would light a fire at exactly the right time for the struggling Civil Rights Movement.

She decided that his funeral would be open casket. In addition, she allowed Jet magazine to take pictures of what was left of Mr. Till’s face. Tens of thousands of Chicagoans passed the casket; there was glass over it so that the decomposition smell from the river wouldn’t overwhelm everyone. That task was left to the face that was so swollen that if there had been just a picture of it, it wouldn’t be recognized as a face.

This was not the first time that an all white Southern jury had acquitted a white man or white men of murder or assault on a black man or men. It was the first time that international press had gotten involved though.

The press coverage was such that it sent a message to all blacks in the country that Brown v. Board of Education (1954 and a follow up in 1955 because the initial desegregation order by the US Supreme Court was being ignored) was a beginning, but only a beginning.

Just months after the trial ended, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus to a white man and was arrested. This began the almost 400 day bus boycott in Montgomery and got Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King involved in leading the movement.

The sit-in movement began in 1961 with a group of college students in Greensboro, North Carolina. Two years later, after a series of demonstrations put down in a brutal way in Birmingham, Alabama, a group of white men would blow up a the 16th Street Baptist Church killing 4 young girls. In the same year, two white men and one black man would be killed in Philadelphia as part of the Freedom Summer when volunteers from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) went southward to register blacks to vote.

Between 1955 and 1963 dozens of men were killed in the movement. Hundreds more were assaulted and millions more felt the every day tension of hatred and anger.

The pictures of Mr. Till are shocking and disgusting and necessary. I recommend this short documentary to anyone interested in the history of that time. The archival footage is both quaint and nauseating, but no denying it was representative. However, if you have a slight stomach for gore, know that the pictures are in black and white and are brutal.

The review is over, the information below is provided due to proximity in location if not time.

I write this, sitting on my back deck in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up in Atlanta: The City Too Busy to Hate. I went to college in Montgomery, Alabama. I am too young to remember desegregation, but my parents are old enough to remember it. Before my turn towards broader literature and linguistics I was becoming a maven of Southern Literature and Southern Culture—I am still, but not as actively (I think something happens to Southerners who stay in the South either despite or because of its peculiar past: I have become contemplative and philosophical, but not yet in a way I want to put words to). There is no excusing the behavior. There is no apologizing for the behavior. What was done was done out of a hatred born entirely from an irrational fear.

Fear is still more powerful in the country than it should be. In April 1995 a Jordanian was detained after the Murrah Federal Building was bombed simply because he looked suspicious. No apology was ever made even after Timothy McVeigh was located and charged. In 2001, violence to Muslims or those who just looked Muslim spiked for obvious reasons. A couple of weeks ago a Korean student was assaulted in, of all places, Auburn University in Alabama simply because he shared an ethnic background with Cho Seung-Hui.

My expertise is in language and literature as I am fond of saying. I understand psychology in the way any informed patient would be and am a neophyte at sociology. I know like many that there is a large problem for which most of us lack the words; however what we do notice is that it is time for people who have answers beyond the idiotic palliatives of ‘zero tolerance’ (which only shifts the location of the problem, it does not solve the disease) to stand up and make themselves heard. I will help where I can, but I need someone to point me in the right direction so I don’t do more harm than good in the attempt.


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