Haunting photo continues to drive filmmaker’s work

It’s hard to believe when looking at the hollowed shell of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market.

But when seeing the photo of the open casket, belief becomes reality.

For there lies Emmett Louis Till, who will never celebrate his 15th birthday, his face bloated and distorted as if he’s been made up to play the monster in a horror movie.

That’s not being disrespectful. His mother wanted everyone to see this horror, the horror of her son’s demise, the horror of what humans were capable of doing to another human.

The horror of what a group of grown men could do to a 14-year-old boy.

So, she requested an open casket at her son’s funeral. The Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine snapped and ran photos, which eventually were published internationally in newspapers and magazines.

And have since continued to be published. This is how Keith Beauchamp ran across the photo.

He was 10 years old at the time, and the mangled-face kid in the photo was only four years older. The image would permanently wedge itself into Beauchamp’s memory, something he would reference in college when thinking of becoming a filmmaker.

Something that would stand in the forefront of his mind’s eye when talking to Mamie Till Mobley years later.

She was Till’s mother, and though she died before her son’s case was reopened, she knew it was going to happen.

And it did, when the Bush administration reopened the case in 2004, resulting from Beauchamp’s documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.

The film was released in 2003. In it, Beauchamp makes the case that 14 people were involved in Till’s death, a sentence imposed on him after speaking to Carolyn Bryant at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in the small community of Money in Tallahatchie County, Miss.

Some accounts speculate that he gave Bryant a wolf-whistle.

Bryant was young, white and married to the store’s owner. Till was a black male. It didn’t matter that he was only 14 years old. Black males were not to interact with white women in 1955 Mississippi, and as the story goes, Till spoke to Bryant on a dare.

He was from Chicago; he apparently thought nothing of it.

But it cost him his life.

“Emmett Till’s name still shows up in pop culture,” Beauchamp said. “The rapper L’il Wayne recently used it one of his songs, but it was in a derogatory way. I think young people need to be reminded of Emmett Till and what happened to him.”

And they will on Monday, Feb. 25, when Beauchamp’s Till documentary kicks off Southern University’s festival of the filmmaker’s documentaries and his episodes from the Discovery series, “The Injustice Files.”

The festival continues Tuesday, Feb. 26, and all films will be shown in the Student Union’s Cotillion Ballroom.

“This will be the first time Southern has shown my films,” Beauchamp said.

Which is a landmark in his career, because he once was a student at Southern. He left for New York in his junior year to pursue filmmaking, but he still considers his university experience at Southern an important part of his history.

“My parents were very supportive of my decision,” he said. “They were even executive producers of my first film, because I couldn’t find financing for it. But they wanted me to have university experience. They thought it was important, and they were right. I value my experience at Southern.”

In fact, Beauchamp’s mother, Ceola Beauchamp, taught business agriculture at Southern. Beauchamp was majoring in criminal justice which hopes of becoming a civil rights lawyer.

“But I believe I’ve done more for justice and civil rights as a filmmaker as I would have as a lawyer,” he said.

Beauchamp spoke on his phone from Atlanta,where he awaited a connecting flight to Baton Rouge. No matter what, Baton Rouge is home. He grew up in the Baker area and graduated Baker High School in 1989.

His family and friends still live in the city, and he’s excited for his hometown to see this compilation of his work.

The Till documentary was a nine year project, but once made, it led to a partnership of sorts with the FBI. Beauchamp began investigating cold case files that involved civil rights injustices and making films.

Cases were reopened and brought to court, and those films led to the Discovery series.

That’s a shortened version of his career so far. And note the words, “so far,” because Beauchamp is looking at producing his first feature film in August.

The subject? Till. The photo of Till in the casket continues to haunt the filmmaker and always will.

Beauchamp started background research on the case in 1996. Again, he asserted that as many as 14 people may have been involved in Till’s abduction and murder, including Carolyn Bryant, to whom Till spoke.

Till was beaten, shot and his body was weighted down with a fan from a cotton gin and tossed into the Tallahatchie River.

The U.S. Department of Justice reopened the case in 2004, and Till’s body was exhumed and an autopsy was conducted by the Cook County coroner in Illinois in 2005.

The body had extensive cranial damage, a broken left femur and two broken wrists. Metallic fragments were found in the skull consistent with being shot with a .45 caliber gun.

But in 2007, a Leflore County, Miss., grand jury composed of blacks and whites found no basis for Beauchamp’s claim that 14 people took part in Till’s murder.

Still, Beauchamp stands by his findings.

“What’s written in the history books is wrong,” Beauchamp said. “It’s always been wrong.”

As producer of a feature film, Beauchamp will have control over the project and its story. He’d like to film part of it in Louisiana.

“Of course, Louisiana has the tax breaks,” he said. “And we’ll be filming it in Kansas, and, of course, Mississippi.”

Because only the Mississippi Delta looks like the Mississippi Delta. Flat, wide and rural.

It’s where the shell of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market still stands. And anyone clueless of what happened there would never know that it’s where so much of the Civil Rights Movement began.

“I talked to Rosa Parks, and she told me that when she refused to go to the back of the bus, she had Emmett Till on her mind that day,” Beauchamp said. “Even Martin Luther King talked about being inspired by Emmett Till.”

Now Beauchamp’s film will be shown to a new generation, some of whom may be ready to be inspired.