Of the countless racial atrocities in U.S. history, a few, for whatever combination of reasons, including chance, rose to a certain level of publicity, of infamy. One of the most notorious was the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. It served as one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement.
My Nephew Emmett tells the story of the lynching of Till. The story is so compelling, so provocative, so infuriating, that even a mediocre film treatment of it would be powerful. My Nephew Emmett is well above mediocre. I thought the acting was a little wooden here and there, but other than that this is a solid, moving film.
Till was from Chicago, but he was temporarily staying with his great uncle and great aunt Mose and Elizabeth Wright in Mississippi in 1955 when he allegedly flirted with a married white woman storekeeper, for which he was subsequently lynched.
Probably he never flirted with her in the first place. Some people claimed he did, some people claimed he didn’t, and all or most of the people who claimed he did, including the woman herself, admitted later that they had lied. There’s also a chance that the accusation was based in part on a misunderstanding. He had a habit of whistling—his mother had taught him that a quick whistle would slow down his speech to help him with a stuttering problem—so it’s possible that reports that he wolf whistled at the woman, if they weren’t lies entirely, were misinterpretations of why he had whistled.
But in the end, it’s inappropriate to focus on this aspect of the story anyway. I mean, what really turns on it? To argue about it implies that it matters, that the lynching was justified if he flirted with her and unjustified if he did not, which is preposterous.
The film does not show the incident in question, so it takes no stand on the details of how it went down. Instead it sticks almost exclusively to the sharecropper shack where Till was staying. (It’s intriguing to see how people lived in rural Mississippi back then, how primitive it was.) In fact, the center of the film is not so much Till as Mose Wright, his great uncle. We see the way events play out from his perspective, and since he was not at the store when Till did or did not flirt with the storekeeper we aren’t shown what happened there. We only know what Wright knows, as he finds it out.
What we are shown, though, includes the two white men and a black assistant coming to the shack in the middle of the night and bearing away the terrified Till, in spite of the pleading and the attempted explanations of the distraught Mose and Elizabeth, not to mention their offers of money and even an offer to go in their nephew’s place. That was the last time anyone other than the murderers ever saw Till alive.
Definite thumbs up for My Nephew Emmett.