One of the most powerful, important things a documentary can do is bear witness to man's inhumanity to man, and document for posterity crimes that cry out for justice, however tardy. The conventional but viscerally moving new doc The Untold Story Of Emmett Louis Till excels in that respect. In terms of cinematic style, it couldn't be less interesting; it's a by-the-book documentary from the "stick the camera in the corner and shoot" school of filmmaking. Thankfully, it boasts a story that doesn't require a surplus of style to be compelling.
Examining one of the most wrenching periods in America's tortured racial history, the film looks into the infamous lynching of Emmett Till, a mischievous Chicago 14-year-old who, while on vacation in Mississippi, was brutally tortured and killed for the transgression of having allegedly wolf-whistled at a white woman. The investigation, sham trial, and subsequent acquittal that followed all indelibly reflected the sadistic realities of life in the Jim Crow South, where local store owners collected money to help pay for the defense, while the local powers-that-were seemed more outraged about what they deemed "outside agitators" from the NAACP than about the child-murderers in their midst. The film centers on the magnetic figure of Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who served as a major catalyst of the nascent civil-rights movement when she insisted that Till's dismembered body and horrifically battered face be shown at an open-casket funeral. By doing so, Mobley forced white America to gaze at the heart-rending physical consequences of its injustice and hate, in the process making Till an icon and the boyish personification of the evils of lynching. The case didn't just put a human face on lynching, it chose a chubby-cheeked, happy, handsome face, frozen forever in photographs with a look of jubilant youthful optimism. America remained a nation divided at the time of Till's lynching, but who couldn't relate emotionally to the unimaginable horror of a mother burying her beloved, fresh-faced boy?
The little style that The Untold Story Of Emmett Till contains largely proves distracting. A sequence involving Mobley placidly describing her first sight of Till's smashed face is harrowing enough without the soundtrack's soft gospel moans and sobs. While the film doesn't delve deeply enough into the nuts and bolts of the trial itself, it remains a powerful indictment of a Jim Crow mentality that's never entirely left the country. This lynching made an unassuming teen into a bona fide civil-rights martyr, but Untold Story reveals at just how horrible a cost.