Aesthetically Speaking

The Murder of Emmett Till naturally emotional

When Stanley Nelson began work on The Murder of Emmett Till more than a year ago, he told his staff at Firelight Media in New York something that stayed on their minds. When Stanley Nelson began work on The Murder of Emmett Till more than a year ago, he told his staff at Firelight Media in New York something that stayed on their minds.

“I don’t ever want to see a piece of footage that we didn’t get for this film,” he said at the time. “If I see footage 10 years from now that you didn’t find, I am going to come get you wherever you are. I am going to harass you – and you don’t want that to happen. If the footage exists, we must have it, whether we use it or not. That’s our job.”

Evidently, they took him seriously. Nelson did an exceptional job putting that rich footage together and having Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, serve as the centerpiece of film, which recently aired on PBS stations as part of the “American Experience” series.

Of course, Nelson, the winner of a coveted MacArthur “genius” award, is not the first to tell the story of Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was murdered near Money, Miss., for allegedly whistling at a White woman. The “Eyes on the Prize” series on the Civil Rights Movement ran a respectable segment on the murder. The two defendants – J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant – were acquitted. They admitted taking Till from his great uncle’s shack in the middle of the night, but claimed they let him go unharmed.

No filmmaker has told the story as well or as compelling as Nelson does in this film. For the first time, two African Americans who were brave enough to testify at the trial as boys tell their stories on-camera. And Nelson found some of Till’s classmates, who round out the profile of the young man before he left on that dreadful trip from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta in 1955.

Nelson has produced films on the Black press and Marcus Garvey, but this is clearly his best; one that has special meaning to him.

“We talk a lot about what’s wrong with this country,” Nelson says. “I don’t know anyone who’s satisfied, especially Black folk. So let’s push for some change. That’s what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. When they looked at Emmett Till’s mutilated body, they said, ‘Things have to change.’ Nothing different today.”

Nelson did not stop at making the film, which had not been screened before Till’s mother died earlier this month. He has launched a campaign urging people to write Mississippi Attorney General requesting that he re-open the case.

As the film shows, Bryant and Milam, who are now dead, were not the only Whites who went to the shack where the abducted Emmett Till was believed to have been beaten. Their identities have never been disclosed and Nelson is hoping that they will still face murder charges. In addition, two Blacks—Levy “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins—reportedly helped clean Till’s blood from one of the murderer’s trucks. However, they were hidden in jail to prevent them from testifying at the trial, Nelson notes. They have never testified under oath.

“Give them immunity,” Nelson proposes. “Subpoena them. You’re not going to prosecute a Black guy for killing Emmett Till. Moses Wright said at the time that there was at least one White man out on the porch who didn’t come in. Willie Reed testified at the trial that he saw three or four White men with Emmett Till. So there are other White men involved. Milam and Bryant have passed, but maybe the others are still out there.”

Nelson’s next projects are a documentary on Sweet Honey and the Rock, a Grammy Award-winning a cappella group that has been around three decades, and a series on the economics of the transatlantic slave trade. But now he is enjoying the warm reception of The Murder of Emmett Till

He says, “This is a naturally emotional story. All we had to do was to stay out of the way in telling it.”

Nelson and his staff did much more than that. They told a gripping story that is just as important now as it

February 3, 2003
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