‘Emmett Till’ in Context: Notes on African-American Cinema

Even before seeing Keith Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, the new documentary about the infamous murder of an African-American teen, I expected to find similarities to Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls, which focuses on the killings of four other African-American children by white supremacists. The two films share not only the subject matter of racial hate crimes against children but also striking parallels in their production histories.

Both projects had long lingered in the filmmakers’ imaginations. Lee had wanted to try his hand at documenting the 1963 Birmingham church bombing ever since his days at NYU Film School, but his interest was not accepted by the families until many years and films later. Beauchamp vowed to work for racial justice when at the age of ten he first came across a photograph of Till’s mutilated body. As an adult, when his goal to become a civil rights attorney was replaced by a passion for filmmaking, he spent nearly a decade pursuing the “untold story” of the 50-year-old crime.

Most importantly, the two films prompted similar social and legal action, outcomes unusual for movies documenting events decades old. The spotlight from Lee’s film on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is believed to have contributed to the re-opening of that case in 1997 (though this was denied by the F.B.I) and the subsequent convictions of two of the bombers who had escaped prosecution in the 1970s when Robert (“Dynamite Bob”) Chambliss was convicted. Beauchamp’s role in having the Till case re-opened is even clearer: when his research unearthed new evidence about the case, he contacted state and federal authorities and provided the evidence that led directly to the re-opening.

Now I do not mean to suggest that Beauchamp’s film is as accomplished as Lee’s, nor that Beauchamp joins the ranks of other important African-American filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Charles Burnett, John Singleton, and Julie Dash on the basis of this one film. But just as Beauchamp’s work reminds me of Lee’s first feature documentary, it also reminds me of the work of another pioneering filmmaker. I’m thinking now of Oscar Micheaux, whose 1919 feature Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving film directed by an African American (written and produced by him as well). Micheaux had tried his hand at many labors–as stockyard worker, coal miner, Pullman porter, prairie homesteader, and novelist–before turning his talents to filmmaking and laying the groundwork for what came to be known as “race movies.”

Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s cinematic reply to the notorious racism of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, which not only lionized the KKK but caricatured African Americans as unruly, violent, and oversexed. Griffith’s emancipated slaves are guilty of terrorizing whites and blacks loyal to them and, of greatest concern to the white supremacist ideology, forcing themselves upon white women. In place of these historical distortions, Micheaux tells a contemporary story in which white violence against blacks was still the norm: on his screens are depicted the lynching and burning of African Americans; a white man’s sexual assault on a black woman; and even the shooting down of an innocent black child. It is this last image, I suppose, that supplies the strongest link to the two documentaries, Beauchamp’s and Lee’s–in which black children are not just witnesses to the ugly racism heaped upon their parents and grandparents, but the targets themselves.