The Emmett Till Movie That Could Be Much More Than a Historical Drama

By  · Published on September 7th, 2015


There is a project nearing its goal on Kickstarter that should be receiving more attention. And it should also be raising more money. Till, a long-planned drama about the tragic 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an event considered a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights Movement, is only looking for $50k, though that seems to be only for development of the movie at this point, not its production budget. With 11 days left in its campaign, the project is already 84% successful. There’s plenty of time for the movie, which will be produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Frederick Zollo (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi) and Keith Beauchamp (director of the 2003 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till), to go over. It just needs to focus on more of why this story is so relevant today.

Yes, Till could follow Selma as another substantial work of dramatized history that resonates with the current issues of racism and the protests that follow. “The return of the rampant, unchallenged racism cries out for the telling of Emmett Till’s story again,” Goldberg says about the project. Yet there’s one significant aspect of the story that’s bigger than the obvious single, surface issue. Till’s murder made national news thanks to his mother’s decision to hold an open casket funeral in spite of how battered and bloated the 14-year-old boy’s face and body were. Jet magazine then also published photos of how he looked in the casket, and that was a huge alarm rung for action. Last week, a photo of a drowned Syrian refugee boy was circulated with the intent that it be a similar sort of trigger, and that made me think about the Till photos’ influence.

Just one week earlier there was another image, a couple of videos even, of a TV reporter and her cameraman being assassinated on the air, live. Many of us refused to look at either the broadcast or the gunman’s own record of the killing, while others called for everyone to look, because to ignore the videos is to further ignore the issue of a mass shootings epidemic in the US. The image of the Syrian boy lying on the beach is being promoted by people who hope it will bluntly raise awareness about the otherwise under-mediated refugee crisis. But there are also those who are only seeing the single photo without the context, and to them it understandably seems like exploitation, to shock people. Till needs to show how Jet’s publication of pictures of Till’s unbelievably deformed face is different from the Daily News putting the Virginia shooting images on their front page. The movie needs to show how such non-exploitive showcase of violence did and can again inspire revolutionary action.

I think that it will, or wants to, because of some of the description on the Kickstarter page. The movie aims to, it says, “portray the vicious murder of a young black boy and the heroic decisions made by his mother.” I expect a graphic feature as far as that portrayal goes, something as difficult to watch as the whipping scene in 12 Years a Slave and the police brutality in Selma. And I expect it to continue to spotlight that imagery while following a main story of the mother, Mamie Till Mobley, in order to be as heroic in its storytelling as she was in her choices 60 years ago. Beauchamp, who has had a very close involvement with the Till case for the past 20 years, befriending Mamie and helping to open the case of Emmett’s murder, also acknowledges that it was the photos in Jet that have been in his mind ever since, influencing his whole life’s work. Now he needs to replicate that experience and feeling for his audience.

The campaign also states that the project is not trying to break any records, just starting a grassroots campaign to raise awareness for the production. But it’s kind of a lackluster Kickstarter page and video at this point, never mind that it’s so far been successful. Being bold and ambitious doesn’t have to be about breaking records. It’s really not enough to simply get Till’s story on the big screen. It’s already been there, and on the small, with Beauchamp’s documentary and others, plus a cheap, little-seem dramatic depiction in 2012. And there will apparently be others, such as an additional low-budget drama titled The Face of Emmett Till slated for 2017. As with Selma and 12 Years a Slave and to a slightly lesser extent Straight Outta Compton, this drama needs the best filmmakers, the best actors, the best overall production in every regard. For its multi-layered importance for the world right now, I’m hoping that Till is a great film that will be therefore be seen by many.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.