As far as I know, no statues or monuments have been built to them, no schools named after them, but if you want to see two of the true heroes from the past century of American history, then go see The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.
This visually and formally mundane but engrossing documentary from first-time filmmaker Kevin Beauchamp tells a story that should be as familiar to most Americans as that of Rosa Parks refusing to leave her bus seat or Paul Revere's ride, but probably isn't.
In August 1955, Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, traveled to the small town of Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives. While there he had some sort of interaction with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who was working the register at her family's store. Till's hand may have touched hers while paying for a piece of candy. He almost certainly whistled at the woman playfully after leaving the store. Soon after, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, visited the home of Till's great-uncle Mose Wright and abducted the boy. Three days later, Till's body, badly mutilated, was found in the Tallahatchie River, tied to a cotton-gin fan by barbed wire.
Till's murder was an international story that shed definitive light on the system of violent racial oppression still gripping the American South, but it might not have become the incident that launched the civil rights movement if not for the actions of Till's mother, then Mamie Till-Bradley, and great-uncle Wright.
Till's mother -- by now Mamie Till-Mobley -- is the primary interview subject of Beauchamp's documentary, which also includes segments with relatives of Till's generation and from community members who were there at the time of Till's murder. In one interview segment, Till-Mobley describes her son's physical condition in excruciating, clinical detail. Then Beauchamp cuts to the famous still photo of Till's crushed head, a shot held for several unbearable seconds, forcing the viewer to truly look at the literal manifestation of Jim Crow racism or turn away.
As the film recounts, Till-Mobley had to enlist the aid of Chicago officials to get her son's body returned to her and then threatened to take a hammer and open the pine-box casket herself when a mortician at first declined. Till-Mobley insisted on an open-casket funeral so the whole world could see what had been done to her son.
"She was able to bring home what a thousand speeches couldn't," Al Sharpton says in the film. "She made America deal with it."
Wright's act of heroism came soon after, when he bravely stood in the Mississippi courtroom, pointed a finger directly at Milam, and said, "There he is" -- an act of defiance all but unimaginable from a man in Wright's circumstances.
Legally, Wright's bravery did no good at the time: Bryant's and Milam's acquittal by the all-white, all-male Mississippi jury was all but assured. But 50 years later, Beauchamp's research, which implicates other participants in Till's abduction and murder, has spurred the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the investigation.
Beauchamp has cited 14 people as being involved in the Till case, five of them still living (including Carolyn Bryant) and, perhaps most provocatively, some of them African-Americans, men who were almost certainly coerced into helping Bryant and Milam.
This partly investigative, entirely activist documentary, which includes interviews with witnesses whose identity is obscured, is sketchier on these new details than the film's title suggests. Much of Beauchamp's research has been held back pending a resolution of the government's case and will likely be used in a second documentary.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
Opening Friday, October 14th
Studio on the Square