The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till Movie Poster Image
Eye-opening docu on horrific '50s murder has graphic images.
  • PG-13
  • 2005
  • 68 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Individuals have the power to stand up for what's right and are the true agents of change. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mamie Till demanded that her son's funeral be open-casket, showing to the world the horrific brutality of his murder at the hands of two white men. Her courage in this act was one of the actions that led to millions marching and protesting in the civil rights movement. 

Violence

Photos of Emmett Till's face and head in the casket, beaten and tortured beyond recognition. Historical photographs of lynchings in the South. Talk of how Till's murderers also severed his tongue and penis. 

Sex
Language

A few uses of the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief mention of drinking in a bar. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is a 2005 documentary about Till's horrific murder in the 1950s and how it helped spark the civil rights movement. Till, an African American teen visiting family in rural Mississippi from Chicago, was killed by two white men after it was discovered that Till had whistled at a white woman. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral; the truly disturbing images of Till's bludgeoned face and head are shown in the movie -- images that shocked a nation into outrage and protest. Archival photographs of lynchings in the South are shown to help present the context of what it was like in the Jim Crow South. There's talk of how Till's tongue and penis were also severed by his killers. There are a few uses of the "N" word. All Americans should be familiar with what happened to Emmett Till, and this documentary is a good place to start. Sadly, rather than being the relic of a more barbaric time in America, its story of brutal racism and unconscionable injustice is relevant decades later, but so is the courage of the individuals who stood up to this stain on American history, and by doing so, inspired millions of others to do the same. 

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What's the story?

THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL begins in 1955, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, left Chicago to visit his relatives in Money, Mississippi. One fateful afternoon, he whistled at a white store clerk, a woman named Carolyn Bryant. Shortly after, he was taken out of his bed in the night by two white men: Bryant's husband, Roy, and his friend, J.W. Milam. Till's body was later discovered in the Tallahatchee River, bound in barbed wire to a 70-pound cotton gin fan. Till was brutally murdered: his eyes gouged, teeth knocked out, tongue cut off, and even worse. While the sheriff in charge of the investigation in Mississippi was eager to have Till buried as soon as possible, Till's mother, Mamie, with the help of Chicago politicians, was able to get her son's body back to Chicago, where, despite her crushing grief and sorrow, she had an open-casket funeral for her son so the world could witness the brutality of her son's murder and how the social order of Jim Crow racism was the reason. While Till's two murderers were never found guilty in Mississippi by any all-white jury, the outrage and protest that emerged from Till's killing inspired many in Mississippi and throughout America to stand up and begin what would be the civil rights movement. This documentary lays bare the shocking facts of this incident, placing it in the context of the Jim Crow South while highlighting the courage of the individuals who stood up to try to put an end to such injustice. 

Is it any good?

While perhaps better known now than when it was released in 2005, this documentary is, sadly, still relevant today. While one would wish that this horrific chapter in American history could be viewed as a moment in far-off history of a more barbaric time, the documentary's story of racism, murder, and injustice make this documentary a timely reminder of how far we want to believe we've evolved in equality for all, but also how far we've yet to go to make the demands of the civil rights movement a reality.

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is also timely in positive ways. Just as now, it took individuals to bravely stand up to injustice -- be they Medgar Evers or Mamie Till, John Lewis or Rosa Parks. The archival footage of those who, at tremendous risk to their lives, testified against the men who murdered Till is a testament to bravery and integrity. Fans of historical documentaries who have been spoiled by the now-standard style of Ken Burns might be less than impressed with the dated video production values, but the presentation of this must-know moment in American history transcends the method of the presentation. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about historical documentaries. How does The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till mix contemporary interviews with archival footage to explain what happened? 

  • Mamie Till insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son, thus exposing the ugliness of his murder to the nation. Violence is often portrayed in movies and TV, but how is the violence shown in this movie different? What does it say that even after so many violent images have desensitized viewers, these photographs of Till's head and face are still shocking and disturbing? 

  • How does the documentary place this incident in the broader context of American history? 

  • How can you learn more about Emmett Till?

  • What character strengths does this documentary illustrate?

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