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By Dan Sareen.
Emmett Till’s story is one of atrocity, one that deserves to be etched into people’s brains. In fact, you might remember it from school. In 1955, 14 year old African American Emmett has moved from Chicago to Mississippi, to stay with his aunt and uncle. Emmett and his cousin talk about girls, wear too much aftershave, and generally act as teenage boys might. Until one day, when Emmett whistles at a white women in town. Her husband and his half brother come to pay the family a visit, taking Emmett away from their house in the middle of the night. Three days later, Emmett’s body is found in a river, mutilated and beaten, and shot in the head.
As may be clear from the title, however, this short film is told from the point of view of Emmett’s uncle Mose Wright. A unique take on this turning point in American history, Mose is a fantastic surrogate for the audience. Watching Mose react to the events as they play out, we feel every ounce of his helplessness and desperation.
The film follows Mose as he finds out about Emmett’s indiscretion, reacting as anyone might with the protection of his family as his main priority. This section of the film, the first half, gestates a little too long, and the horrific effect of the second half could still be achieved with a little less dead space near the start. Sparse language allows us to get to know the characters through their facial acting, and the film is underscored by tense orchestral and choral pieces. Director Kevin Wilson Jr is clearly very much focused on the art of the story, beautifully framing Mose in his atmosphere. The camera work is particularly noteworthy when the men arrive at the house in the middle of the night. In the darkness, we see only what Wilson illuminates, the micro expressions and feelings of the characters picked up exquisitely.
Emmett’s story deserves to be a feature film, but Wilson is not the man to direct it. His point is very clear: that what happened in Mississippi all those years ago was unforgivable, and unforgettable. But Wilson is heavy handed in making this point, and the film lacks nuance and originality as a result. It is easy to compare this film to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit from earlier this year, or Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning Crash. Both films know that they have something very important to say about racial tensions in America, and to make their audience listen, the directors abandon subtlety. Where those films succeed is in the development of their antagonists, allowing the audience an insight into why they are perpetrating such horrible actions. My Nephew Emmett asks us to accept without any character development that bad people did something evil because they could, and that Mose expected this outcome. The short fails to show the bigger picture of racial tension in America at the time, or why this event was so historically important for the Civil Rights movement.
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