Ask the average American which incident birthed the modern civil rights movement, and Rosa Parks' bus ride is the answer you'll get at least nine times out of 10. But in the eyes of others including filmmaker Keith Beauchamp the real impetus for racial reform was the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan who made a fatal error while visiting relatives in Mississippi: He whistled at a white woman outside a store.
Beauchamp's documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, takes no chances that its audience will the miss the ominous implications such a "crime" held in the Jim Crow South. Interviews with surviving family members recall the horror that descended like a shroud when it became clear that Till who is generally recalled as a good lad with a tendency toward cheekiness had crossed a behavioral line that may not have existed in Chicago but was in full effect in Mississippi. Within hours of the indiscretion, two men (one of them the dishonored woman's husband) visited the house where Till was staying and took him away to teach him a lesson. His body was found floating in a river a few days later, bearing the effects of an instant education that had included the removal of his tongue and genitals.
Beauchamp reaches this point without exploitation or cheap foreshadowing; there are no dramatic music stings underlying the outwardly innocuous biography before it methodically descends into true American tragedy. Introducing us to its central character and then taking him from us, the movie puts us in sympathetic lockstep with his mother, whose outrage shone a national spotlight on the murder and inspired a prosecution that was as controversial as it was doomed. (A sheriff assures TV viewers that Mississippi law enforcement is treating the case with all due seriousness and urgency; in the next breath, he blames outside groups like the NAACP for riling up the local "niggers.")
But soon after Till's killers are shown walking off scot-free, the 70-minute movie hurtles forward to an uncharacteristically hurried and sunny conclusion. We learn that the Justice Department ordered the case reopened in 2004, yet Beauchamp fails to adequately explain how or why. Most enticingly, a TV reporter remarks that a certain movie project named The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till played a role a fleeting mention that would seem to introduce a whole new element of meta-activism to the tale. There's an entirely other story in here, one that could show how the media responds when the mirror it holds up to society is turned back upon itself. In Beauchamp's work, though, that part of the story remains Untold.