Keith Beauchamp, 34, has spent the last 10 years of his life investigating the brutal murder of Emmett Louis Till in Money, Miss., in 1955. Till, 14, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was reported to have whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, and was subsequently tortured, beaten and shot in the head.
Beauchamp has produced a documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," that chronicles the events leading up to and after Till's murder. It is because of this documentary that the 1955 case was reopened on May 10, 2004, on the basis of at least 13 people who where either indirectly or directly involved in the kidnapping and murder.
Next, Beauchamp is working on a feature film about the Emmett Till case as told through his eyes and a documentary on recent lynchings, four of which happened in Mississippi.
"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" has been recognized all over the world, including at the International Film Festival in Norway where Beauchamp spoke with the JFP by phone.
When did you learn what happened to Emmett Till?
I was 10 when I came across the picture of Emmett Till in Jet Magazine. My parents explained to me what happened to him. They used his story as an educational tool for me and my sister. They would say, "Don't let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you."
Is this when you were first introduced to racism?
Yes. I first became aware of racism personally when I was in high school in Baton Rouge, La. I dated interracially. I was beat up by policemen because of it.
Where did you go from there?
I went on to Southern University (in Baton Rouge)to study criminal justice with plans of being a civil rights attorney. During my junior year I moved to New York City and was introduced to filmmaking.
Why do you feel you were called to tell this story?
When I first started, I didn't feel I was called, but Mrs. Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, told me that she felt I was preordained to tell this story. My original plans were for this to be a feature film and not a documentary.
How did it become a documentary?
Mrs. Mobley encouraged me to forego plans for a feature film and create a documentary. This way the true story would come out. With a feature film, it's always based on a true story, (but) all of the facts don't come out.
How else did Mrs. Mobley affect your interest in this story?
Mrs. Mobley knew the history of it all. She fought for 47 years for the truth. She was a major influence on (the entire process). I spent a decade of my life working on this case. I was 24 years old when I first started. She was nurturing me into an activist without my even knowing.
What roadblocks did you face?
It was a huge struggle for me to get financing. People tried to tell me to forget about the past. They would say things like we should be moving forward and not backward. If we don't learn from our history, it will repeat itself. People are so afraid to talk about racism. My parents ended up giving me the funds to produce this documentary. It was the money they had saved for me to go to law school. My parents live in Louisiana.
The information you gathered for this documentary has led to the reopening of this case. Why do you think it's important to go to trial after all these years?
It's extremely important for this case to reopen. Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. It was supposed to be forgotten, swept underneath a rug. A 14-year-old boy was murdered. The Civil Rights Movement started because of his murder, and little has been said or done about it.
It's been 50 years now. How did you get any remaining witnesses to speak with you in front of a camera?
At first no one would talk to me. There was a point where I had to put my filmmaking hat aside and become a friend. I became friends with them and convinced them that I would do right by the information they gave me. I secretly filmed in Mississippi for four years. It wasn't until Simeon Wright (Emmett Till's cousin) agreed to speak with me that everything else began to fall into place. He was in the bed with Emmett Till when he was kidnapped.
Why does Mississippi need to see this documentary?
Because racism still exists in spite of Till. We've seen it recently with Hurricane Katrina and the situation on the Gulf Coast. Things haven't changed that much. It's so much bigger than Emmett Till. It's about addressing the social profile we've been plagued with and why. Let me make myself perfectly clear. I am not attacking Mississippi. I love Mississippi. In a lot of ways, Mississippi is the foundation of this country. That's why if Mississippi doesn't change its thinking and its ways in relation to racism, the United States of America as a whole will never change.
8:30 pm: Q&A with the ACLU and Keith Beauchamp, North Park
1:30 pm: Q&A with Keith Beauchamp, North Park
3:45 pm: Panel discussion (with snacks), sponsored by Crossroads Film Society and the Jackson Free Press, Tougaloo College
8:30 pm: Q&A with ACLU and Keith Beauchamp
3:45 pm: Q&A with NAACP and Keith Beauchamp
Wednesday, Dec. 7
7:00 pm: M.A.P. Coalition and the Jackson Free Press sponsor a screening and panel discussion, North Park
For more info, call 601.278.3615
You'll be most interested in these two blawg posts and my online Civil Rights movies:
First I was an editor/photojournalist/reporter, then my parents, Arthur Ashe and others recommended law school, then I was an Ohio AAG for 3yrs then Civil Rights lawyer for 5yrs. Now my team demystifies the legal process.
Movies at: christopherkingesq.com
- Christopher King