The concluding scenes in Kevin Wilson Jr.’s film My Nephew Emmett mark neither the beginning nor end of the event of Emmett Till’s murder. Without ever showing Till’s murder on the night of August 28, 1955, by the Tallahatchie River, Wilson’s film asks the viewer to delimit the ways in which the lynching of Emmett Till has been remembered (and misremembered) and understood within the larger afterlife of lynching in the South. In doing so, the film amplifies its meditations on time and the cultural memory (along with the production of this memory) of Emmett Till and his murder. In the film’s final scenes, the viewer sees John William “J. W.” Milam and Roy Bryant’s truck with Emmett in captivity after the two white men have forced their way into the Wright household. Driving off into the evening’s darkness, the scene immediately thereafter shows Mose walking forward, preparing to give his testimony to the public. He stands directly in front of the film’s camera. The white interviewer informs him, “This will be quick and simple,” further instructing Mose to explain “your relationship to the deceased and what has happened … just like we already discussed.” The shot pans out, and we see behind him a Black cameraman who looks up, makes eye contact with Mose, and then looks down back at the camera. The interviewer adds: “Pretend the camera’s not there.” The cameraman looks up again with the sound of the film reel rolling, a sound that always reminds the viewer of “the first noise of cinema.”1 The sound of the rolling camera grows louder, seeming to come off-screen instead. As the shot focuses on the cameraman peering into his lens, the film cuts to the archival footage of the actual Mose Wright about to share his testimony—as if resurfacing from the real and as if the film were asking where (or how) the viewer has placed Mose, the Wright family, and this event in their own memory all along.
Indeed, when the contributors to this forum convened to discuss the film in February 2019, one of the central and recurring themes explored in the roundtable conversation was the film’s composition of sound and temporality. Here already, the term composition does not seem to quite fit the nature of the film’s engagement with these dimensions as both aesthetic and historical devices. Along these lines, for example, one of the most striking comments came from an audience member, Gale Carter, who reflected on the construction of her earliest memories as a child during the late 1950s seeing the photographs of Till after his murder. Carter shared how her own understanding of the construction of both the photographic image and her memory would evolve and undo itself, time and time again, while the images maintain their relevance always in the present. To this, she adds: “There still are situations that we, as Black people … have to always take into consideration. On our daily, going to work, minding your business, doing your regular thing … there’s still always a threat.”2 Her interpretation of Till’s photograph and its sociocultural implications unfurls across time, but so does her interpretation of the scope of lynching violence, as if the photograph were an image placed onto the present state of policing. Here, the image is in place regardless of its changing meaning and interpretation—while also still reminding her of a threat always already elsewhere.
Similarly, in the film, Wilson confronts the viewer from its outset and throughout with a sense of transience that cannot be delinked from the nature of lynching violence and that also throws light on the unstable conditions of representation through which anti-Blackness registers. Perhaps knowing the limitations of historical and filmic representation, Wilson faces the more difficult, if not entirely impossible, task of rendering the internal antagonisms—between myth and evidence, historical memory and racial terror, white politics and desire—that situate the ineffability of Emmett Till’s murder. With this in mind, the film evokes the limitations of metaphor. It poses the question of how an image can stand in for something that it is not. How can a substitute image (whether filmic, memory, archival, or virtual) cohere a semblance of lynching violence in its gratuitous scale across time, psyche, and force?3 Indeed, perhaps such a question is why Wilson makes the deliberate choice of never portraying what might be commonly construed as the “beginning” or “end” of what has been characterized as the event of Till’s murder. That is, the film never depicts the scene in which Till allegedly whistles at Carolyn Bryant; nor does it show the terrorizing sequence of violent acts composing Till’s murder or Mamie Till mourning at Emmett’s open-casket funeral. Likewise, the film never references the whistle through image or sound at all. The only mention of the whistle is in a dialogue between the uncle, Mose, with another local at the water hole who informs Mose that Emmett “can whistle his ass off too.” Mose stops. The man continues, “Just ask Carolyn Bryant.” Again, the choice to not “flash back” through an imaginary scene or reference to the whistle through sound or image is crucial. It underlines the sense that a mimetic reproduction of the alleged whistle cannot stand in properly for the scene, raising a question about the ethics of representation and what comes to stand as an image of Till’s lynching in cultural memory. In this further sense, the film elicits another question: Can sound be an image of violence? And if so, what are the ethics and status of sound in the film as such?
The film’s running time of twenty minutes makes for the compact yet powerful development of these “audio-affective leaps of presence,”4 which accompany the transience of violence, abjection, and loss, as well as the racialized differentiations required within. The film’s use of minimal dialogue and subtle sounds plays an important role in shaping the film’s complex affect through which the psychical nature of lynching can be implied.5 However, the film refuses to use a substitute aesthetic device or metaphor to illustrate the racist illogic of whiteness that always rationalizes and justifies lynching as a coherent form and law in its production and justification of Black death.6 By contrast, the film engages with the lesser known aspects of the “iconicity of Till’s murder”7—namely, by centering the role of the uncle, Mose—gesturing to the ways in which anti-Blackness confronts a limit in the short-circuit of symbolization. The film in this regard evokes the transience of the night of Till’s capture and murder at multiple registers, while especially pivoting on the ways in which the essence of transience is a reflection of scarcity8—the scarcity of time, recognition, repair, knowing, and being.
The evocation of transience and use of sound work together in maintaining the affect of the psychical nature of lynching violence. In other words, without ever referencing a specific image of lynching itself, there is the sense—through sound—that lynching violence is at work somehow, somewhere. In this way, the film troubles the way that lynching is often bracketed as an event while also placing pressure on the definability and representability of its violence. Sound, of course, can always represent a type of violence but can also be a type of violence contributing to or intruding upon the formation of a subject, narrative, memory, fantasy, or delusion. In another context, Veit Erlmann explains that sound is “inextricably intertwined with the subject: as voice, as verbal utterance, and as an expression of the self’s innermost intentions. At the same time, however, sound is also barred from forming a durable basis for instantiating a (legal) subject.”9 Here I draw from Erlmann’s insight about how “sound, in law, not only leaves no trace; it never attains the status of an object to begin with,” to reflect on how sound works part and parcel with the dominant ways that govern representation in film. Sound is not, therefore, an image but raises questions about what it means to collude with the logic of representation.
Nondiegetic sounds in the film importantly signal how Mose is barred from becoming a subject of his own volition: he cannot live the night without the violent intrusion in his mind hailed by lynch law’s ubiquitous effects. For instance, the sounds in the house (a voice on the radio, running water, and footsteps) and a “white noise” turn into the sounds of the humming of a gospel choir off-screen, notes that portend the threat of violence. This use of nondiegetic sound—the humming of a gospel choir—anchors a somewhat fleeting moment while Mose takes a bath. There is no means of defense for the event of violence to come (and needless to say, for the violence that has already taken place)—legally but also at the registers of the body and psyche. In turn, the impossibility of (racial) mourning magnifies the fundamental fractures between loss and time passed and time passing—one that is without repair and cannot cease against the movement of time. These provocations, paradoxically, illuminate the uncle’s central role in the film all the more. For as an impossible paternal figure, or a paternal figure in an impossible position to protect, reckon, and reconcile, the uncle, Mose, is at the threshold in which desire remains unnamed and unnameable.10
In the scene described above, the film’s sonic haunting specter is brought into its sharpest index. After waiting all evening for his nephew to return home after a night out so that he could question him about his alleged whistling at Carolyn Bryant, Mose shifts and withdraws from making an accusation, smiles warmly at Emmett, and sends him off to bed. The film cuts to Mose drawing himself a hot bath, a scene consisting of a series of short cuts between Mose with his eyes closed submerging himself under water and him sitting up, eyes wide open, with his head above water. The hollowing effect of sound within sound ties together the transitions of this sequence indicating an evacuation of quotidian noises. Stated differently, we are clearly not in the space of everyday sounds anymore. We no longer hear the bath running, Mose’s breathing, the surrounding noises of the house or the night, making difficult for the viewer to discern where Mose is.
Blurring the distinctions of one’s psychical topography, the film presents Mose as unlocatable before our eyes. It is not quite clear whether Mose is awake reflecting pensively or dreaming anxiously, conscious or unconscious, submerged under water entering an imaginary state or postured maintaining his head above the surface of water. There is no way to reconcile this contradictory demand of identification between Mose’s sense of himself and himself as Other. The film’s use of sound, simultaneously revealing and collapsing these boundaries, also at once mirrors lynch law’s racial abjection, a violence that precedes and exceeds the moment of murder. If there is any remaining sense of plenitude, it is that the film’s question of this aesthetic demand to reconcile these splits—between language and sound, psychical states, the intrusion of the whiteness of lynch law into public and private Black life—is untenable. The sequence abruptly comes to a halt with Mose jolting back up and catching his breath.
The field of representation (visual and audio) and its interpretable cues in the film are, in a way, paradoxically forced into relief when Mose catches his breath. We can understand the diegetic sound of this moment—him quickly gasping for air, a sound that interrupts the nondiegetic sound that marshaled the sense of overlapping yet liminal psychical states of Mose—as a type of echo and rem(a)inder of the emboldened status of prohibition enforced by white symbolic law and power.11 Or put another way, the film communicates how practices of representation are forced into a particular signification, interpretation, and meaning not only when an image stands in for something that it is not but also when it is perceived that it can. The perception of the image’s capacity to stand in assumes that standing in provides a kind of reconcilability or even respite despite how anti-Blackness in its varying scales may be evoked in the image. Such assumption also rests on Blackness to labor without end—just as the scene of Mose in the bath depicts his mind to be put to work guarding against the thought of what is to come, wrestling against the material and psychical nature of lynching violence.
If the film, as I have tried to argue, productively places pressure on metaphor as a trope of representation and refuses to seek metaphor as a conceptual device indexing the profundity of lynching violence, this suggests that sound also does not function as an image in the film and, instead, interrupts the image and structure of time even insofar as dominant orders of representation wrestle to confine them. The film conveys this transitory nature of lynching violence, but, in particular, the syntagmatic aesthetic relationship between image and lynching is undercut by the enigmatic role of sound in the film. After all, one cannot hear what occurs in the unconscious.
One might argue that sound as an interruption or disruption to the image is always its role in film—always gesturing to an elsewhere. Yet it should not be taken for granted.12 For the question remains, as Michel Chion has eloquently remarked: “Should the sound be taken as subjective or not? Who hears what we hear?”13 Though one might add: Who is and what conditions this collective we that hears or does not hear the violent tapestry that threads the Other’s dream work of defense against the pervasiveness and perversions of lynching and policing, a state and image that too often go undetected and unheard?
By way of conclusion, let us return to the closing scene with the Black cameraman glancing at Mose. The film reel is running. Though his words fade into the background, one can hear the white interviewer command, “Pretend the camera is not there,” as if reminding Mose and the viewer of Mose and the cameraman’s disposability and the scopic field that situates and only reinforces an alienation14—the split between the gaze of culture and the camera’s eye, from self to object—when Black and appearing on-screen.15 More than this, any dissolution of lynching’s drives, vicissitudes, and its surviving traces on- and off-camera does not resolve the indelible conditions of anti-Blackness and its auxiliary fractures. The cameraman looks at Mose, and no words are exchanged (“but there is a clearly an exchange”).16 The running of the camera grows louder only to stop abruptly, cutting to the next shot. The archival footage of Mose Wright introducing himself as he is about to deliver his testimony is, at the end, on-screen with the film’s beginning original score in the background.
Linette Park is a visiting assistant professor in the African American Studies Department at Emory University. She was the Thurgood Marshall Fellow in Dartmouth College’s African and African American Studies Program (2018–2020 academic years). Her research—situated in Black critical theories, carceral studies, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies—examines the long history of and collusion between lynching and policing that persist into the present. Her first book monograph that explores such topics is forthcoming with Stanford University Press.
Michel Chion, Film: A Sound Art, trans. Claudia Gorban (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 8.
Colloquium on Lynching Violence and Representation: Film Screening of My Nephew Emmett and a Roundtable Discussion (University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019).
Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
I am grateful for my conversations with LaShonda Carter during our roundtable conversation and her engagements with me on the topic of silence and sound prior to the forum on the film. Her provocations on the limitations of language and the role of value, in multiple registers and functions of the word, in lynching at the level of the imaginary have been incredibly useful. University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019.
Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
In our original conversation, Erin Gray incisively raised how the film productively sustains its attention on the lesser-known dimensions of Emmett Till that go against the “iconicity” of Emmett Till’s murder and a popular understanding of the case. With this, she critically asks, “What [does] it means to ‘represent’ the Emmett Till lynching in way that pushes against its iconicity?” University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019.
Here I lean on Freud’s notion of transience, where he explains, “Transience value is scarcity value in time.” Sigmund Freud, “On Transience,” in Standard Edition, Volume 14: On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, ed. and trans. James Stratchey (London: Vintage Books, 2001), 305.
Veit Erlmann, “The Acoustic Abject: Sound and the Legal Imagination,” in Sound Objects, ed. Rey Chow and James Steintrager (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 153.
In our original conversation, Bridget Cooks brought to mind the affect of sensuality in the film pointing further to the incommensurability of sexual politics and libidinal dynamics of lynching violence. In particular, Cooks raised importantly the disavowal of Carolyn Bryant’s involvement in Till’s murder under the instantiations of “true white womanhood.” Of course, the disavowal of Bryant’s involvement is even more insidious as her complicity carries over the latter half of the century and beyond when Bryant admits of lying and fabricating about her encounter with and the murder of Till in 2008., University of California, Irvine, February 22, 2019.
For a powerful discussion on the implications of the defendant’s central claim that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was not identified as Emmett Till’s and more generally on political myth, lynching, law, and representation, see Jacqueline Goldsby, “The High and Low Tech of It: The Meaning of Lynching and the Death of Emmett Till,” Yale Journal of Criticism 9, no. 2 (1996): 245–283.
For a compelling and sustained analysis on sound, time, Blackness, and anti-Blackness, see Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme and the Image of Common Sense (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); and Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: New York University Press, 2019).
Chion, Film, 50.
See Jacques Lacan, “The Split between the Eye and the Gaze,” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 67–78.
See David Marriott, Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity (New York: Rutgers University, 2007).
Carter made this point in our original conversation. As a final note, I want to thank again my colleagues, LaShonda Carter, Bridget Cooks, and Erin Gray for their invaluable and productive insight, always. The colloquium could have not taken place without the generous support provided by the Humanities Commons Grant at the University California, Irvine.