We live in a culture so driven by visual images that our eyes can't take them all in. From pop-up Internet ads to quick-cut TV commercials to high-tech billboards, we witness far more than we can comprehend, wiping most of what we see from our mental hard drives. Some images, though, aren't so easily erased. On rare occasions, the mind becomes like a photographer's darkroom, in which an image doesn't fade but resolves to such clarity that it becomes an indelible memory.
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath generated many such sights, especially in the news footage of the Superdome evacuees. I'm especially haunted by Newsweek's recent cover shot of a desperate woman clutching two infants. Making parts of America's Gulf Coast look like the most impoverished Third World country, such moments testified to how America can still treat its most poor and vulnerable citizens.
Almost exactly 50 years before the disaster of Katrina, another set of images from the same region bore witness to an evil both more monstrous and more human. For the open-casket funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, allowed photographs to be taken of her son's horribly mutilated face. In 1955, the lynching of Till became notorious not just as an isolated atrocity in Mississippi, but as a symbol of the South's brutal way of life.
The documentary "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" arrives with Katrina images still fresh. The pictures of the natural disaster and the premeditated murder reinforce each other while providing a measure for how America has changed. Director Keith Beauchamp began working on the documentary in 1996 while researching a feature film on Till. He found enough interviewees—some speaking out for the first time—that he chose instead to make a plain yet devastating nonfiction movie.
In August 1955, Till traveled from his Chicago home to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in Mississippi. Friends and family describe him as fun-loving but in some way innocent to the depths of the racial hostility in the Jim Crow-era South. By whistling at white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant, Till brought the wrath of the white power structure down upon himself, and three nights later, Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn, and J.W. Milam, Roy's half-brother, arrived at Wright's house with guns, and took Till with them.
A few days later, Till's body was found in the Tallahatchie River. His body was returned to Chicago in a sealed casket, but Mobley insisted on opening it. The film's explicit discussion of the appearance (and odor) of the corpse suggest a nightmarish ordeal for Mobley, whose decision to have an open-casket funeral had historic repercussions. In family snapshots, Till appears as a smiling, cheerful boy, but his ghastly posthumous photographs look more like the Elephant Man, and they provoked national outrage.
"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" never proves an artful or technically adventurous documentary, comprised of archival material intercut with footage of seated witnesses speaking on videotape (some with their features concealed). Fortunately, the Till case was extensively filmed at the time, and Beauchamp uncovers such incongruous moments as a white clergyman fainting at Till's funeral. A powerful still photograph captures Mose Wright pointing out Bryant and Milam at the trial, itself a life-risking "provocation" in the racist South.
Bespectacled, soft-spoken and resolute, Mobley comes across like a spiritual sister to Rosa Parks (who, just a few months after Till's murder and trial, fatefully refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus). She describes walking to the courthouse and seeing white children "shooting" her with toy guns, to the chilling amusement of their parents—an eloquent tableau of how racism is passed down through generations.
In Beauchamp's shrewdest decision, the film withholds details about the jury until the deliberations begin. We get so caught up in the trial, we forget that the rule of law didn't apply in 1950s Mississippi. Then we see Bryant and Milam's white male jurors, and realize that the not guilty verdict was a fait accompli, despite the town's apparent common knowledge of the pair's guilt. After the trial, the defendants answer perfunctory questions and then the Bryants, bizarrely, French-kiss on camera, as if white sexuality needs public affirmation.
"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" arrives as the rare film that makes a tangible difference in the real world. Bryant and Milam may be long dead, but Beauchamp's film implies the complicity of other people, and, as a work-in-progress, it inspired the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the case in 2004.
Hate crimes may always exist, but it's impossible to imagine the system that endorsed Till's murder being tolerated today. Look at the images of the Superdome's bereaved, starving African Americans, however, and you might think relatively little has changed—black people still bear the brunt of American social problems. The fiasco in New Orleans stemmed more from governmental incompetence and class inequity than racial conspiracy. Since African Americans disproportionately make up this country's poor, it stands to reason that the majority of Katrina's victims were black.
But that argument soft-pedals America's greater racial problem. It's like saying that the Emmett Till case was an aberration because in the Jim Crow South, most Southern blacks weren't tortured and killed. In different ways, each set of pictures show the failures of America's national promise for people of color. They're the exceptions that prove the rule.
This review first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.