The Director talks about his 9 year struggle to get the film made and ultimately reopen the court case behind it

Keith Beauchamp is a man on a mission. In creating the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, Beauchamp found himself on a 9 year journey that still isn’t over. This film chronicles the murder of a 14-year-old African-American named Emmett Louis Till. He supposedly whistled at a white woman and was later killed because of it. When the men responsible for this awful act were found not guilty by an all White jury, a groundswell of African American Resistance coalesced into forming the American Civil Rights Movement.

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till chronicles all of this and more as it attempts to tell the whole story behind this heinous crime. In parsing through many years of footage and interviews, Keith Beauchamp has made a film that seems more relevant than ever in dealing with race issues in America. As result of Beauchamp’s work done in making this documentary, the United States Justice Department reopened the investigation into the murder of Emmett Louis Till.

How did you you end up telling the story of Emmett Louis Till?

Keith Beauchamp: Well, I would have to go back to my childhood. I first learned of Emmett Till at the age of 10, I grew up in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. I was in my parents study and I came across a Jet Magazine photograph of Emmett Till. Of course, like many others, it shocked me. I couldn’t believe that could happen to a little kid, and my parents came in and explained the story to me.

Throughout my life Emmett’s name kept resurfacing in my parents household, because of the fact that in high school I was interracial dating. The first thing my parents would tell me before I left the house at night was, “Keep from letting what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.” So it was an educational tool that my parents used to teach me about the racism that exists in this country.

Two weeks before my high school graduation, I had my own run in with racism. It was my wake up call, basically. I was beat up by undercover Police Officers for dancing with a White friend of mine. That’s what actually spurred me to want to tell this story.

Can you describe the 9 year process of getting the film made? Was there ever a point when you thought you were done when you weren’t?

Keith Beauchamp: Yes, there was many times when I would hole up and I would say, “This is enough,” but something took complete control of me. I became obsessed and I’m still obsessed with this case and I could not stop. I kept finding new evidence on the case. My whole objective of producing the film didn’t come out of just trying to be a filmmaker, it came out of trying to make sure justice was done in this case.

This documentary started off as a feature film. It only became a documentary after the encouragement of Emmett Till’s Mom, because of the fact that I was coming across new evidence and she said that I needed to get the story out. In the right way and with all the facts, and the only way I could’ve done that is through documentary. It wound up getting the case reopened. It worked to our benefit.

Was it easy to get people to talk about what had happened?

Keith Beauchamp: That’s why it took 9 years. (Laughs) I basically had to encourage a lot of people to come forward. I had to put the filmmakers hat aside and become friends with these people first so they could trust me, and begin to tell me the story of Emmett Till. After that, they’re like my family now. A lot of my time was taken trying to convince people to come forward and talk about the case.

In regards to the relatives of Emmett Till in the film, they stopped talking about it because it was history... from scholars and historians... this disinformation was put out into the public, the witnesses didn’t even want to talk after that, because they were so upset on how the media told the story.

How long did it take to edit the film?

Keith Beauchamp: It took my editor of the film about a year. I shot close to 180 hours worth of footage. What really stopped the progress in the editing was losing Miss Mobley. After she passed I didn’t want to touch the film. I just sat on it. I couldn’t even deal with the fact that she’d passed away. I went into a deep depression.

So I didn’t even want to deal with the film and I left the film alone for a little bit. For close to a year and then we decided that we needed to move forward, and to keep the promise I gave to her which was to do everything in my power to get the case reopened.

As the story is 50 years old and with the wealth of footage I am sure you had, how were you able to decide what should make it into the 70 minute movie?

Keith Beauchamp: I stepped away from it. I let the editor, who has been with me since day one he’s like my mentor, put the film together. I wanted him to do it because everything looked good to me. At the same time I have to be clever about what I put in the film without harming the case. There’s a lot of things I could have put in about the case, even now, there’s so much stuff that I’ve discovered after the case was reopened that I could have easily put in the film, but I chose not to because first and foremost was, “I need to get justice for Emmett Till.”

I have to take a backseat on my filmmaking career. I love filmmaking. I’ve always said I wanted to be a Black Steven Spielberg, so I’m just hoping that this case and this project will be the start of something big for me. However, I have to stress that we are at a crossroads right now... The FBI made a statement a few days ago that in the next 30 days, the DA in Mississippi, the first black DA over the counties where the murder took place, she would now be the one in charge of the possible indictments that are gonna happen.

So my whole objective now is to get this DVD in the hands of everybody that I can, so they will be educated about this case, and begin to mobilize and galvanize behind this effort.

When you first got started with the film did you have any idea that the case might be reopened based on your findings?

Keith Beauchamp: I would tell you “No” but I hoped it would, you know? And the reason why I say that is because the whole time, my parents and Mrs. Mobley kept saying that I was preordained to tell this story. To hear it from the mother of Emmett Till, she’s telling me, “You’re gonna get my son’s case reopened.” You know I didn’t believe it.

Of course I didn’t believe it because I’m in the midst of it and I’m the one she’s talking to. After awhile, after I saw all these eye witnesses opening up to me, I couldn’t understand why. After all these years a lot of people tried to interview them or get to them, they never spoke about it, but when I came into the picture they decided they wanted to talk. Maybe I was preordained to tell this story?

I say that because I don’t know the outcome of this. What’s gonna happen?

While on the 9 year journey that you were on and that you’re still on it seems, what do you think is the most important thing that you’ve learned?

Keith Beauchamp: What I realized through this whole journey... it wasn’t just finding out the truth to why Emmett Till was murdered, it was about me finding my place and identity as a young African American male in this country for this generation, and finding my passion in life; my calling in life.

And I think my calling in life is to address the Civil Rights issue in this country. To wake the consciousness of this generation up, to get them to understand that we are the Civil Rights movement today. We have to carry on where others left off. We are the most politically conscious generation of our time. We should be eager and ready to take on the same thing that our parents took on.

The Civil Rights movement is not that old... we just really have to understand the power that we possess right now. I believe that documentary filmmaking is that new wave of activism that is going to change the world.

Do you think there is something about documentary films that is the best way to tell The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till?

Movie PictureKeith Beauchamp: Absolutely, because people are now getting wise about documentaries. It’s always been big business in Europe to watch documentaries, most of their content on television is documentaries. We as a nation, as a whole in this country, we somehow devalue documentaries. We don’t watch them as much unless you have a Michael Moore come out and do his film.

That was one of the frustrations that I had to deal with, I’m a big fan of Michael Moore don’t get me wrong, but you have someone who produced his film, or Fahrenheit 9/11 that does nothing... nothing to help the country because Bush is still in office. But you have someone such as myself who did a film that... had a case reopened and then at the same time this film, what has happened since this film is changing lives as we speak. Is making a difference and then people don’t go out and support it.

The impact that this case had on the American Civil Rights movement... because of Emmett Till’s murder... it was in Rosa Park’s mind and she refused to get up on her seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It was because of Emmett Till’s murder that led Dr. Martin Luther King, who was 26 years old, to take on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, because he felt that the Emmett Till murder was an intimidation factor to keep Black people away from the polls.

Somewhere along the line we didn’t have this in our history books. Only recently, after Rosa Parks passed way, people began to talk about Emmett Till and that Emmett Till was foremost in her mind that day. When you talk about the context of history, the Civil Rights history, the Civil Rights movement that gave us all liberation, nationally and internationally, because the Civil Rights movement, their whole struggle was the basis of democracy in this country.

This is a very important case. Not only for Black History but American History.

What do you have coming up next?

Keith Beauchamp: I’m pushing the DVD. I just signed a deal for the feature film with Fred Zollo who did Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi. I’m producing the film. It’s going to be a coproduction between my company and their company. The story is gonna be told through my eyes. People will get a chance to see what I went through, trying to tell the story of Emmett Till and the evidence that I came across.

I’m gonna use that film as my second alternative, if things don’t turn out the way I want them to turn out within the next few months... I’m just gonna let go on that feature. I’m gonna put all the evidence I ever came across in that feature. All the stuff that was never disclosed to the public. My whole objective now is to keep focused on this case and make sure that justice is done.

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till comes out on DVD on February 28th, 2006.

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Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs