Take me instead.
Everyone knows or should know who Emmett Till was. Many label his death as a major catalyst for what would become the Civil Rights movement—it occurring in August 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott following in December. At only fourteen years of age this Chicago native was accused of whistling and flirting with a married white woman while visiting family in Money, Mississippi. Her husband and his half-brother tracked down where he was staying and abducted him at gunpoint during the night before leaving his lifeless body to be found in the Tallahatchie River three days later. Till’s mother insisted on a public open-casket funeral while his assailants were acquitted by an all-white jury only to admit their crime a year later thanks to double jeopardy laws.
That’s the context behind Kevin Wilson Jr.‘s NYU Pre-Thesis short My Nephew Emmett, an assured, emotional look at Jim Crow Mississippi. Rather than focus on Till (Joshua Wright) himself and therefore show us the gruesome details of what we already know, Wilson turns the camera onto the man who was tasked with his wellbeing: Emmett’s preacher uncle Mose Wright (L.B. Williams). It may not sound like much, but this shift in target is huge because it shows the futility of their reality without allowing viewers the ability to dismiss their nightmare as a “misunderstanding.” To watch Emmett is to see a boy unversed in a world very different than his. His fear holds confusion while helplessness haunts Mose. Where Till still might possess hope, Mose knew the truth.
And Wilson delivers the harshness of that truth through seemingly harmless exchanges weighed down with subtext. When Mose converses with a neighborhood acquaintance about his family, it’s easy to laugh about the fish-out-of-water newcomer breathing life into those around him. But the words spoken aren’t description as much as warning. To say Emmett is funny is to explain that he’s been noticed. To say he’s a prankster is to say he might have “joked” with the wrong crowd. So when this friend describes how the boy showed a white woman how good a whistler he was, Mose can’t help but tense up. From then on the end is inevitable. All we can do is witness how it unfolds alongside him, numb to a reality that still permeates today.
The whole is very well made with effective performances centered around Williams’ memorable turn as a man who’d do anything to save his nephew’s life trapped in a position where doing so would sign the death warrant of his entire family. Wilson provides a lot with a little (see Emily Hooper as Carolyn Bryant, the “accuser”) and gets us interested in the bigger picture. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of expansion prospects because he has a keen handle on the politics involved without letting them overshadow the tone of what is a family tragedy first and foremost. We deserve to experience historical moments like this on a micro scale to understand their universality. It’s the human cost that resonates, not its abstract significance. You could be next.