When Mississippi started to burn – My Nephew Emmett (Short Film Review)

Often a historical set film tells you more about the present day that about its time period. They reflect current issues that can create a false reading of history to make a statement about today. Or sometimes they completely whitewash history, usually for marketing reasons, to the detriment of peoples experience, see U-571 (2000), Stonewall (2015) or any of Mel Gibson’s historically set films. So I was nervous about how the short film My Nephew Emmett (2017) would show the tragic events around the race murder of 14 year old Emmett Till.

In rural Mississippi 1955, Moses Wright (L.B. Williams) is joking around with his son and his visiting nephew Emmett (Joshua Wright) as the boys prepare for a night out. Later, however, Moses hears from a neighbour that Emmett was seen trying to flirt with a married White woman, Carolyn Bryant (Emily Hooper). Moses hides the news from his wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy), and knowing that the White townsfolk would not stand for a Black man, even a 14 year old, flirting with a White woman, begins a long fearful vigil for his nephew. It’s only later, after Emmett returns that a gang of armed men turn up at the shack and, after threatening to kill Moses wife and son, they drag Emmett out into the night. The film ends with footage of the real Moses Wright talking to a news reporter after the discovery of Emmett’s mutilated and shot body.

My Nephew Emmett doesn’t show the brutal murder of Emmett Till; it doesn’t show the open casket coffin that his mother requested so to show the world what they did to her son; it doesn’t even show the alleged incident between Emmett and Bryant; it only focuses on his uncle Moses. It captures the feeling, the fear, and the hatred of the time. My Nephew Emmett does not gloss over nor reinvent the historical reality for the African American people. It doesn’t provide explanation for it and it doesn’t have to. The fear that crushes Moses throughout shows that this is a time when something as unremarkable as alleged flirting by a 14 year old to an adult can result in brutal murder simply because of their race. Moses doesn’t say anything about the incident but his anguish is palpable. There is a simple rhythm to the film that heighten the terror Moses is going through as he knows a violent reprisal is coming.

But the film is not without its issues. Earlier I said Emmett allegedly flirted with Bryant and I want to draw you back to this. During the aftermath and later trial of the killers it was alleged that Emmett either flirted or wolf-whistled at Bryant, a violation of the segregationist culture. This was challenged by family and friends of Emmett and in 2008 Bryant told historian Timothy Tyson that she had fabricated much of her story for fear of her husband’s violent nature. The other issue is that it does not mention the fact that his murderers were acquitted and that they later, protected against prosecution by double jeopardy, openly bragged about killing Emmett.

The murder of Emmett Till has been called the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. The brutality of the murder, Emmett’s age and the clearing of the killers caused a wave of indignation that brought the fight for Civil Rights to the fore in America. As we find ourselves in our current age still dealing with issues of racist violence and lack of justice, My Nephew Emmett makes for compelling viewing.

Dir: Kevin Wilson Jr.
Scr:  Kevin Wilson Jr.
Cast:  L.B. Williams, Joshua Wright, Emily Hooper, Jasmine Guy
Prd: Mark A. Terry
DOP: Laura Valladao
Music: Gavin Brivik
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 20 minutes