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2004-12-18 01:00:46

Shocking: The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

This case is believed to be one which was a 'true catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement'.

"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till", one of the independent films featured in the first annual Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF) line-up, was a powerful and unsettling documentary, which led to the re-opening of a 49-year-old case.

The documentary focused on a racially motivated case in which a 14-year-old Chicago teen was senselessly killed during a visit to the Mississippi Delta. In 1955, Till made the trip down to the Delta to visit with relatives. One day in town a whistle at a local white woman would lead to his subsequent abduction and murder, by her husband and another man. The teen had been tied with barbed wired to the wheel of a cotton gin that had been placed in a Mississippi river. Till was badly beaten to the point of being unrecognizable, one of his eyes had been gouged out and there was also a bullet wound to his head that had been crushed. He was identified because of an initialed ring he wore.

Civil Rights Movement

This case is believed to be one which was a 'true catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement'. The suspected murderers were arrested and charged, but later acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.

"I learned about the case of Emmett Till at the age of 10," producer/director Keith Beauchamp said during an interview with The Guardian on Saturday in a sitting room of the Royal Towers, Atlantis Hotel, Paradise Island an hour after his film was shown at Galleria Cinemas.

He explained: "I was in the study rummaging through my parents' magazines and I came across the 'Jet' magazine with the photograph in it and it shocked me tremendously. I just needed to know who was this kid and my parents sat me down and explained the story to me at that time."

Raised in the Deep South – Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mr. Beauchamp said the story became "an educational tool to keep you aware of racism."

Now a resident of New York City, he said he is no different from a lot of other African-American men who were confronted by racism "that still lurks in America".

History behind Emmett Till

From his early days, the producer/director continued, he was always fascinated with "telling the story. The name (Emmett Till) kept resurfacing throughout my life. When I got into high school, I was interracially dating and my parents, before I went out the house would always tell me 'Keith don't let what happen to Emmett Till happen to you.' They didn't say that to stop me from dating outside of my race. They said it to keep me aware that these type of things are currently happening and if you don't watch out something may happen to you."

In late 1989, he recalled, "Two weeks before high school graduation, I was actually beat up by an undercover police officer for actually dancing with a white girl.

"That kind of sparked my interest even more, to try to tell the story of Emmett Till. I went to college at the Southern University of Baton Rouge wanting to get into Criminal Justice - wanting to get in a position that these type of things don't happen to any other African-American man," he said.

During his junior year of college, he went on, he moved to New York City to work for his best friend's film production company and, "I started writing and directing music videos. So it all started off in that manner and then I moved and had the opportunity to do my first feature and I decided to do the Emmett Till story."

From feature to documentary

From that point, he said, the documentary did not start out as such, but as research material to produce a screenplay about the case. The screenplay was completed and auctioned off for producers at Show Time, but according to Mr. Beauchamp, "They sat on the project."

He said that although "It was a difficult situation at first," matters changed in 1996 when he met Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. "I felt like I gave my life away and I needed another alternative project to produce and met Emmett Till's mother, and that's when we decided to produce the documentary about her life and her son's," he said.

"It was a difficult situation at first, because I was so afraid to call her and ask her to help me produce something about her son's life," he said. Having mustered up the nerve to call and ask her blessing after hanging up on Mrs. Mobley one time, he called back. On the second call, he said Mrs. Mobley sensed that he was nervous so she simply asked him, "Mr. Beauchamp please tell me what you want." After he told her the reason for his call, Mr. Beauchamp said, "She was so happy" that a young person was involved and "wanted to help to seek justice for her son."

Open casket burial

In her own words, Mamie Till-Mobley described and explained why she chose to show the badly mutilated body of her son, who had been badly beaten and murdered, after the case caught the media's attention. With an open casket, Mrs. Mobley defended her decision stating, "I want the world to see what they did to my son."

Beauchamp stressed that they both came very close, and with her passing last year, he said, "It's still very hard for me. I miss the woman dearly. She helped sculpt me into the person I am today." Her death was so far, he said, one of the worst things that had happened to him.

The director/producer said that having worked on the case for the past nine years, it became a part of him; "So to really lose her at a time that I knew she fought 47 years to seek justice for her son's murder. Mamie Mobley was not a lay down person, she was out speaking, very prominently at different organisations, different universities, trying to galvanise the people behind her to help her in efforts at getting her son's case re-opened."

Mrs. Mobley, Mr. Beauchamp said, "basically sculpted" him into an activist "without me even knowing. I came in this as a producer trying to produce a documentary and it became personal to me." No longer viewing his work as a project, this young man now 33 years old, said, "This was just something that I had to do."


Despite her passing, Mrs. Mobley always believed the case would be re-opened, according to Mr Beauchamp, who at times himself had doubts. "She always told me that she felt that I was pre-ordained to do this story. It wasn't until she passed away that I see all the signs that she had talked to me about," he said, revealing that he became very spiritual during the documentary, because he saw how Mrs. Mobley's faith had kept her going all these years,

At times now when he listens to her voice on the documentary, Mr. Beauchamp said, all the things that seemed to be spoken in a code, during their talks before her passing, he could now clearly interpret.

"I don't know how to measure success with this film," he said, as money cannot measure the success of the film. Further he has mixed emotions about the film due to Mrs Mobley's passing and the fact that he is still running around trying to get the film distributed.

Nonetheless, Mr. Beauchamp said, he is determined to get his film in theatres and on the television next year, as that will mark the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till's death.

Just do it

Based on his experience, Mr Beauchamp urged aspiring filmmakers "to just go and do it because life is too short. I feel like I am racing against time because I started out so late. If you have an idea just go out and do it. Don't let anyone tell you it can't be done.'

As to where he goes from here, the producer/ director said he plans to put out films that will educate and entertain and also one that will out-do the Emmett Till documentary.

Mr Beauchamp said he is presently writing his memoirs and a feature film is also in the works about his own life.

Jimenita Swain, The Nassau Guardian

Read also "The Untold Story of Keith Beauchamp"  

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