Writer/Director Keith Beauchamp champions the cause of justice for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till with documentary
There are millions who have probably never heard the name Emmett Till. For Keith Beauchamp, that name has become nearly has familiar as his own. For a decade he has been working diligently to tell the story of the young black boy who in August of 1955 was brutally murdered in Mississippi for innocently whistling at a white woman. This Tuesday, the DVD of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till gets released (read our review here), and Beauchamp took time to talk with us about the journey he embarked upon to learn more about the case. That life-altering experience has lead to a new chapter in the Till case, which was reopened in 2004 thanks to Beauchamp’s efforts.
Tail Slate: What inspired you to make this film?
Keith Beauchamp: I first heard of Emmett Till at the age of 10, when I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I came across a copy of JET magazine that had published the photograph of Emmett’s body in 1955. And like many of us, that photograph shocked me. I couldn’t imagine how someone could murder him in the manner that they did. And then I learned that he was killed for a simple act of whistling. My parents came in and explained the story to me, and over the years Emmett Till’s name kept coming up in my household.
When I was in high school I was involved in inter-racial dating, and the first thing my mother would say to me was, ‘Please don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.’ They didn’t say this because they wanted me to stop my inter-racial dating, but because they wanted me to be aware of the racism that still exists in this country. Then two weeks before my high school graduation I had my huge wake-up call when I was beat up by undercover officers when I was dancing with a white friend of mine at an inter-racial party. And that’s what sort of pushed me to want to do something about the racial problem in this country. I decided to study criminal justice at the University of Baton Rouge, and then I became a civil rights attorney. Later I decided I would try the entertainment field, because two of my childhood friends had moved to New York City and started their own production company. I produced some music videos, and then had the opportunity to work on my first feature, and the only thing I could think about writing was the Emmett Till story.
That’s how it started off. It was going to be a feature film, but then later turned into a documentary because of all the evidence I came across, as well as the encouragement of Emmett Till’s mother. She basically said to me that it was going to take a long time for me to make it as a feature, and that I may not be able to get all the facts out because of Hollywood. ‘Why don’t you do it as a documentary and use it as a stepping stone,’ she suggested.
TS: Has there been any further movement on the case since it was reopened?
KB: A lot has happened since the case was reopened in 2004. The FBI has come in and worked extensively and processed the evidence I have given them and the leads on the case, all the way up to the examination of Till’s body in June, and now we’re at the crossroads. Just a couple of days ago the FBI said that everything will be handed over to District Attorney Joyce Chiles in Mississippi. She will be the one to decide whether or not to go ahead and seek indictments. And so my objective is now to keep telling Emmett Till’s story until justice is done.
TS: How did you start the process of finding the people involved and getting the interviews?
KB: It was very difficult because of the fact that a lot of the witnesses did not want to talk about the case. I was young at the time, when I started doing this. I was 24 years old, and I went down to Mississippi and started poking around. Eventually I met Emmett’s cousins, who were all still there. I met Simeon Wright, who was one of Emmett’s cousins who shared the bed with him the night he was abducted. It took me three years to convince him to talk to me. He was like my missing link to the whole case. After I got an opportunity to get him to speak to me, he opened the doors to everyone else.
TS: Were they reluctant to talk about it because of their own personal feelings, or where they simply afraid to talk about it because of what might happen to them?
KB: They were afraid to talk about it. But in Simeon’s case, he was afraid to talk about it because he was upset about what history has written about the case. A lot of historians and scholars who have written about the incident have blamed his family, his side of the family, for the murder of Emmett Till. It was even written that the cousins had dared Emmett to go into the store (which led to the encounter which got him killed). All this misinformation led to a lot of them not wanting to talk at all because they weren’t certain what would happen to their words. In regards to Ruthie, the only female at the store that day, she was afraid to talk on camera so we had to hide her identity.
TS: It just shows you that a lot of that anger, they still feel it there.
KB: Nothing has really changed in this area of Mississippi. Racism and prejudice still exists, those people who had those ideas in the 1950s and 1960s still feel that way today. And it’s not only in Mississippi. We’re still fighting that war.
TS: How did you feel when you were talking to these people and learned about their experiences during that time?
KB: It was very emotional. You would think that after all these years a lot has changed, but the reality is nothing has really changed. Even during the process of talking to these people [for this documentary] there were a number of lynchings that took place throughout the South, and around the country in general. These lynchings were often ruled as suicides by local coroner offices. And this was all going on during the production of this film.
Then there was sitting down and hearing these stories about something I first heard about when I was 10. Getting all the players and putting all the pieces together was just amazing. I never thought in a million years that a story I heard when I was a child would be something I’d have the opportunity to tell millions of others about as an adult. And tell it in a way that was so compelling that it reopened the case. Emmett Till became an obsession for me. Telling his story, meeting his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who was one of the most prolific people I’d ever meet in my lifetime. And she came into my life at a point in time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. She nurtured me into the activist that I am now, without even my knowing it.
TS: There are some white people who are still around from that time and were involved in this case. Were any of them willing to talk with you?
KB: First of all, I did not want to be biased. I wanted to go in with a clear head and start from scratch. I wanted to feel that atmosphere and understand why this murder took place. I really thought that if I could understand this case it would help our generation deal with racial relations today. So I went in and I tried to interview the other side, but nobody wanted to grant me an interview. I was able to confront the wife of J.W. Milam, and she said that ‘my husband is dead, and Emmett Till is dead, and this story needs to be dead.’ The white people didn’t want to talk about it. They thought I was opening old wounds, and dealing with something I didn’t even understand. And they were telling the truth in a way, because I never realized before how complex the case really was.
TS: There were two things that surprised me about the film. The first was that there were blacks involved in the crime.
KB: It is amazing, because for so many years you hear it is black-and-white, black-and-white. And then being African-American myself and coming across the works of Medgar Evers, Ruby Hurley, Dr. Howard, and James Hicks of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. These people were the first to lead the secret investigation behind the scenes of the crime that discovered that black men and other white men were involved. And then I built upon the work of these great people and found out that a lot of the people they were looking for at the time were still alive. And that’s how things began to unravel for me about the case.
TS: The other surprise was when you show the picture of Emmett Till’s corpse. I can’t wrap my head around how a person could do that to another human being. But do you think that image is still as effective today as it was then? Aren’t we a more jaded society now?
KB: No, not at all. Everyone who has seen the film has been affected. I’ve been traveling the country and lecturing about this case. I’ve screened the film, and I’ve talked to students and I’ve talked to civil rights organizations. That photograph is even more powerful today than it was then. And it is because we’re a generation that has forgotten all the travesties that have occurred in our past. I can’t blame us, our generation, for that. We have to blame our elders and our parents for not wanting to instill those values that they had during the civil rights movement. They need to sit down and tell us those stories. Our parents don’t tell us those stories anymore because they feel we don’t have to go through it. But I knew that if I used that photography in that film today it was going to wake a whole generation up, and that’s exactly what it is doing. I mean, you even have people who grew up during that time and never heard of Emmett Till or saw that photograph. This story is being taught all over again, but this time it is being taught the right way.
TS: How did the murder of Emmett Till affect the Civil Rights Movement?
KB: Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket funeral changed the world. It sparked the Civil Rights Movement. It was because of Emmett Till’s death that Rosa Parks refused to get up from her seat in Alabama. It was because of Emmett Till’s death that 26-year-old Martin Luther King decided to take on the Montgomery bus boycott because he felt the murder of Emmett was an intimidation tactic to keep black folks from the polls. So these people made these courageous decisions because of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. The march on Washington, August 28th, it is the same date as the murder. A lot of people don’t realize that the reason that date was chosen was to keep Emmett’s memory alive. When you talk about civil rights in this country, you can’t keep talking about Brown vs. Education, and then jump over Emmett Till and go to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Of course the Civil Rights Movement would still have happened, but I don’t think it would have been as effective.
TS: Why do you think that people so often overlook the murder of Emmett Till?
KB: Because of the fact that we as a country, black and white collectively, haven’t faced our demons. Racism is still a problem here, but we’re still afraid to discuss racism in a public forum. In 1955, the Emmett Till case was never talked about. It was a bad case, and it was a great atrocity committed to a child, and no one wanted to talk about it.
TS: Why is this the “untold” story of Emmett Till?
KB: This is untold because there’s a lot of information that has never come out about this case. I only used eyewitnesses that were involved in the case. The film doesn’t have narration. I was never a fan of narration, because sometimes when you have a narrator you feel as an audience that that narrator is telling you the truth. But here, I only wanted to set a platform for the eyewitnesses who have never spoken publicly before. And that was very powerful for the Justice Department, which is what led to the case being reopened.
TS: What kind of equipment did you use to conduct the interviews?
KB: It was all kinds actually, because I shot most of the interviews by myself. Most of the witnesses didn’t trust anyone else. I used a Sony DVX1000, Canon XL1, and a BetaSP Cam. That was it.
TS: And what was the span of time all the interviews were gathered within?
KB: Four years. No, I take that back, because even afterwards I was still finding people to interview. Everywhere I needed to get information I went out and shot it. I completely finished the film in 2004 for the Hamptons International Film Festival.
TS: Did you find at the end that you found there were interviews that you had to leave out?
KB: Of course, there were a number of people I left out because of the investigation. I wanted so badly to include them in the film, but I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to affect the investigation. A lot of people who have seen the film, the media and all, have said that it is a perfect set up for a second film. I wasn’t able to put everything that I really wanted to include, but people are now telling me I should make a second part because now I can put in everything. I just signed a deal for the feature film, so I think that’s going to be my second film.
TS: How important was all the archival footage you used?
KB: It was very important. It authenticated the information that the eyewitnesses were describing. It was very important to have that because it was the bulk of the story. The Emmett Till case started the media revolution in this country. The Emmett Till case is the only case of its kind to be completely documented by archival footage and micro film, as well as photographs. All major networks and newspapers covered this case. Even other countries like Russia, Germany and England were writing about it.
TS: The main reason these people were not punished in the first place was because of racism and the racist establishment that was in charge at the time. Do you think things have changed enough for justice to be done?
KB: I will say yes because of the fact that the case was reopened in the first place by the Federal government. I have hope.