Denn Pietro’s Till We’re Free tells the story of the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy whose only crime was being black in 1950s Mississippi. Till, visiting from Chicago and unaware of just how dangerous the South can be, is goaded by friends into flirting with a white woman shopkeeper. When word gets back to the woman’s husband, he and his half-brother decide to teach Till a lesson, kidnapping him in the middle of the night before brutally torturing, disfiguring and finally murdering him.
The murder of Emmett Till becomes a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, as Till’s mother’s choice to have an open casket at Till’s funeral shows the world the grotesque results of the murderers’ actions. This, coupled with the all-male, all-white jury’s acquittal of the murderers, and the murderers’ recounting of the events in boastful fashion after being cleared, inspired many, including Rosa Parks, that things had to change.
Regardless of your prior knowledge, or lack thereof, concerning the murder of Emmett Till, its impact remains powerful. This film never stoops to shock with gore or explicit violence in its recreation, but the trauma isn’t lessened by the choice. There’s just no way to discuss, imagine or portray what happened to young Emmett Till without getting disgusted with the situation.
That said, the film, despite leaning on the authenticity of the details of the Till case, somehow manages to feel somewhat false. Performances seem to be playing to the importance that time has placed upon the murder as opposed to what would be more natural then; dialogue isn’t spoken so much as proclaimed. This gives the film a stage-play feel, with performances that are aiming for their words to be heard by the back of the theater, to echo through time.
Technically, it’s a sound bit of filmmaking. The choice of presenting the tale in black and white gives the film that feel of being more of its time, like a sobering and depressing episode of a ’50s era television program. This works for creating context and also offers up the contradictions of nostalgia where some would like to think the ’50s were all I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver, while the truth was far more unsettling.
I think any film that can shine a respectful light on the Emmett Till murder, while educating and informing those who do not know, has achieved something of importance. That said, I have seen a few films now on this subject, with some leaving a more lasting impression than others. Till We’re Free is fine enough, certainly confident and competent in its telling, but beyond the inherent power in the truth of the tale, I didn’t get much out of it.
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