Department of Theatre and Film
Industry Insight: Keith Beauchamp
Director of The Untold Story of Emmet Till
By Anamita Gall
Keith Beauchamp is the producer of the acclaimed documentary, ‘The Untold Story of Emmet Till’. It is a film he has worked on for approximately the 9 years. With his documentary which is an investigation of the 1954 murder of young Emmet Till in Mississippi, he managed to reopen the case by the United States Department of Justice in May 2004. His research uncovered other witnesses and participants in the murder. His hope that they would be put through a trial, however the Supreme Court decided against this.
Keith Beauchamp is from Louisiana. He started out in college studying to be a civil rights lawyer, however felt he had another calling. He moved to New York City to work with a group of friends who were just starting out in the film industry, developing their own production company. He started out in the industry directing music videos with directors such as Hype Williams. One day he was posed the question: ‘if you could make a film Keith, what would it be?’ His reply was a film about the story of Emmet Till.
What motivated you to make a film about Emmet Till?
I was motivated to make a documentary on the case of Emmet Till because I felt it was a story that had be used as an educational device to enlighten viewers of the racist atrocity intertwined in U.S history. I had encountered a photograph of Till in Jet magazine, and it amazed me how hate can play such a powerful catalyst in this hate crime and lead up to the murder of a young boy all because of him simply addressing a white woman. As I grew older, my parents would tell me of the Emmet Till story as a precaution to the dangers of being a black man in the south, especially when I began to interracially date. My parents would often say, “don’t end up like Emmet Till”. Later on I encountered racism firsthand, and that encounter affected my life significantly.
I can recall an incident where I was at a nightclub and was dancing with a white female classmate, and subsequently I was attacked by this white club bouncer. Then I was further beaten by an undercover police officer, who later arrested me. All I could think of when I was getting beaten was Emmet Till.’ After all that, I knew in my heart that this documentary about Emmet Till had to be made, and it was going to be the first film I made.
Why did you become a filmmaker especially in relation to activism?
I believe that the current state of society in the U.S and the world overall , suggests a need for activism. If you compare the news of the world today, and that of the world during the 50s, it is very similar. I also believe that the state of race relations in the U.S. is not where it should be, considering the reality of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. I believe that minorities, especially African Americans, have become stagnant, and need to realize the need to continue the struggle for equality and an improvement of race relations. I feel that the best way to jumpstart change and the awareness of its necessity is through filmmaking because it is a potent method of communication. Media is a powerful tool of communication, and Emmet Till’s mother, Mrs. Mary Till, knew that. She allowed photographers to take pictures of her son’s body on the condition that they publish them and show the world what was done to her son. I believe that our current generation is visually oriented, thus making film and media the best tool of communication today.
Are you going to continue making films which are a form of activism, and if so would you consider doing it in a narrative format?
I believe that activist film is best told through a documentary format. At this point my next film will be a narrative. Through the experience of this documentary, I met many other individuals in the South who want me to investigate and document stories of family or friends that had disappeared or been killed due to stringent racism of the South. I hope to do a television series with the help of the FBI, which will investigate cold civil rights cases, thus helping families who have lost loved ones to race driven violence in the South with some form of closure; while also finally ensuring justice be served.
How did you go about making this film, as it took you approximately 9 years what was your process of filmmaking?
I started out by researching the case, and found that it had never been properly investigated. Files listed witnesses; however they were never allowed or called upon to testify. There were no follow up investigations into the information they had given. Thus after finding so many missing links, and unanswered questions, I traveled to Mississippi where I went through a process of finding and interviewing these witnesses. The process was long because it took some time to gain the trust of the witnesses. For 4 years I was, in a sense, researching and filming the documentary in secret. I feared that the evidence I uncovered could jeopardize the documentary, and goal of being able to reopen the case.
Once I gained the trust and support of Mrs. Till, I continued with the project. Initially the film was supposed to be a narrative, however Mrs. Till convinced me of the importance of it being a documentary so could serve as an educational tool for the world. The film relied heavily on uncovering evidence in relation to the case so it took a great deal of time to go through that process.
There were many cases of lynching in the South, why this one?
The case of Emmet Till was story that the world came to know through the media.
Mrs. Till had allowed wide publicity of her son’s death in order to educate and remind the society of the time of the racism was very prevalent and blatant in the South. The ghastly pictures of Emmet Till’s body had been published in Jet magazine revealing the horrors of the South. She had hoped this would inspire society to address its racial problems, and realize a need for change. I believe that the massive publicity of Emmet Till’s murder was the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement which followed in the early 60s. ‘Rosa Parks was quoted saying that she was motivated, not to give up her seat on the bus, because she remembered the story of Emmet Till.’
Did you encounter any difficulty finding funding for the film?
As I already stated, I filmed the documentary in secret for the first 4 years for fear of the information I discovered. I also had problems finding funding for the film. I was fortunate to have started out with $450,000, which my parents had saved for my college education. After those first years, I had compiled enough footage to make a 30 minute short documentary which I took throughout the country to organizations, and universities in an attempt to raise funding for it.
Were there any pros or cons in obtaining funding for the film as it dealt with race/ social relations?
Unfortunately and surprisingly, I did not find much support from civil rights organizations. In most cases they were poorly funded and couldn’t afford to support the film or me. In other instances, I also found it difficult to convince them of the importance of the work I was doing. It’s astonishing how many civil rights leaders of today felt that it was a case that was insignificant, and didn’t see the point in investigating it. Even churches that I had screen the film for did not support the film financially.
Did you encounter any difficulty in obtaining rights for some of the footage of the trial in the film?
I did not encounter any significant problems in gaining rights for the footage from the original trial, however I did encounter resistance from Jet Magazine for the use of their photograph of Emmet Till’s body. What eventually happened was that Jet Magazine’s rights to the original photograph expired and it became public domain so I was able to use the photo.
What were some of the outcomes of this film?
As a result of film, and the investigation, I not only managed to reopen the case of Emmet Till, but the U.S. senate also passed the Till Bill, which allocates money towards the investigation of cold civil rights cases. The government also made an apology for not having passed an anti lynching act earlier than 1954 to ensure the safety and civil rights of blacks in the South.