I’m honored to be in conversation with scholars LaShonda S. Carter, Erin Gray, and Linette Park about Kevin Wilson Jr.’s haunting 2017 film My Nephew Emmett. The nuanced layers of the film offer and generate insights into the ongoing legacy of white supremacy. Wilson accomplishes this through sensitive storytelling that explores love, restraint, and sacrifice.
To begin, My Nephew Emmett is a sensual film. There’s a focus on intimacy within the interior space of the home and through the interiority of Mose Wright as the central character. The film begins with the sound of a choral a cappella rendition of Moses Hogan’s “Hear My Prayer” and a view of the front door of the Wright family home from the inside. Presented as a dark and sacred space, this introduction of the empty house contrasts with the subsequent scenes of vibrant family life in the home and cultivates viewers’ awareness of stillness and loss. The first populated scene focuses on sensory perception and connects viewers to the narrative through common experiences: getting ready for a night out and preparing for a night in. Viewers meet the family through an intergenerational character dialogue about aftershave and the performance of masculinity in public space. Wright tells his nephew that he needs to put on some aftershave, but not too much. He lovingly imparts wisdom to Till regarding how men should care for and present themselves in a particular way. Although Till disregards Wright’s advice to use one “or maybe two squirts” of aftershave, the exchange ends with laughter.
Shortly after Till and his cousin leave the house, we see an intimate moment between Wright and his wife, Elizabeth, who contemplate the potential of having an evening alone. Before watching the film, I had not considered that Wright had a wife. I had only thought of him in relationship to Till: the uncle who did not join the Great Migration, choosing instead to remain in Mississippi. But the film reveals another dimension of Wright as a man with his own family, needs, and challenges. By focusing on Wright’s perspective, My Nephew Emmett shows that the elder was desired. Elizabeth embraces him, smells him, and lovingly tells him he needs a bath. He grumbles but agrees and goes to get water. Like the fragrant splashes of aftershave, water makes viewers aware of the senses. Viewers see and hear the labor that Wright and his neighbor Young Deacon put into pumping water from the well and carrying the water. Wright pours water for his bath. The muffled sounds of drowning when he is submerged in the water foreshadow Till’s body sunk in the Tallahatchie River. As if it was a baptism, Wright raises his head from the water and gasps for air. The enactment of this Christian ritual further marks the home as sacred and suggests symbolic death and rebirth. Liveliness through sensual perceptions depicted through the smell of aftershave, warmth of Elizabeth’s embrace, sweat of labor, water at the well, and the overwhelming sounds of struggle in the tub all prime the viewer for the feeling of loss that follows these early moments of the film.
Viewers also feel a connection to the Wright family through the considered use of natural light. The decision of how to represent time allows viewers to experience the change from day to night as the narrative develops. When the film begins, it is already nearing day’s end, and it’s going to get dark quickly. Because we know Till’s fate, starting the story at dusk is a reminder that the characters don’t have much time. The strategic use of light constructs an urgent situation for the family and, symbolically, for the nation because what happens when the sun sets becomes a story that has haunted America for generations. Because death comes when night falls, Wright cannot rest. He is awake all night contemplating the violence to come. His night watch fills the screen with anxiety and highlights the family’s vulnerability.
The African American studies scholar Sandra Harvey commented during the postscreening discussion that although we know what’s going to happen to Till, we still hope for an alternate ending. The powerful way in which the film depicts intimacy affords us this possibility. By showing Wright at home, alone with his thoughts as he plays out possible scenarios, viewers can see his pain. The actor L. B. Williams does an incredible job conveying Wright’s anger, restraint, and love in the scene when Emmett returns home from a Saturday night out. Instead of burdening the boy with what is coming, Wright decides to let Till feel free and unknowing for as long as possible. Wright’s facial expression goes from anguish to calm as he seems to think to himself that Till is just a boy.
As the story unfolds, I was struck by the way the film addresses the issue of upholding traditions. Having forced their way into the Wright house with the silent Young Deacon around two thirty in the morning, one of Till’s murderers, John William “J. W.” Milam, asks, “Where is he?” When Wright doesn’t answer, Milam immediately threatens Elizabeth with violence. He puts his arm around her shoulders, presses his pistol under her chin, and asks, “This one yours? Is this bitch yours?” The Black woman’s role in this scene, in this story, is to be a tool for Milam to assert dominance and clarify the social order of white male supremacy. He uses her to make Wright do what Milam demands, and it works.
After apprehending Till, Milam rhetorically asks Wright, “Do you think I want to be out here disciplining your little niggers? You think this is fun for me?” The film presents the notion that white men have no choice but to kill. Viewers can see how the guilty men rationalize their actions and claim to be innocent. This may have actually been the murderers’ position. Their blamelessness is constructed in a way that exposes the complicity of individual identity with social position. The murder is deemed inevitable because Milam’s twisted sense of justice makes individual thought unnecessary. He argues that his personal desire is contrary to his actions. He is mandated by his race and nation to kill. Of course, in reality, Milam was in the position of power and had any number of choices that excluded murder.
In fact, during the abduction scene, the men are given two choices. Elizabeth offers Milam all the family money instead of taking Till. Milam’s coconspirator, Roy Bryant, tells Milam that they should take the money, but Milam rejects that option. Next Wright offers to sacrifice his life instead of Till’s, but again Milam refuses. Choosing not to kill Till would mean recognizing him as human. This acknowledgment would, in the killers’ minds, dissolve the structure of their identities and deny white entitlement. For them, these two things could not be dismissed for the life of a Black boy. Till doesn’t understand the ways of the Jim Crow South, and the white men insist on educating him. By following the rules of white supremacy, Milam and Bryant maintain their sense of dignity.1 Doing so requires the destruction of Till, who embodies Black youth, masculinity, and the North. The truth of the matter is that the Wrights and Till are actually the ones who have no choice. To act against these men would mean the death of Mose Wright and his entire family, Emmett included, and likely the deaths of other Black people as victims of white retaliation. There is no tomorrow for Emmett.
The loving and safe space of the Wright home is disrupted to reassert the elevated position of Roy Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, who symbolizes ideal white womanhood. She is complicit in the murderers’ desire to defend her honor, which necessitates Black death. This is a familiar scenario that preceded and succeeded Carolyn Bryant. From the Scottsboro boys to Christian Cooper, white American women typically weaponize their raced and gendered positions to harm and kill Black people. For white supremacists, the white female body is equivalent to the sanctity of the republic. The anti-Black violence that white women initiate reaffirms their value and the value of the white nation. Till’s youthful utterance sets off a chain of ritual, anti-Black actions that sustain a structure of white supremacy.
The film ends with a scene taking place days after the lynching. Wilson imagines the moments leading up to the actual footage of Wright being interviewed about his recollections of the murderous events. It is a windy morning, and Wright stands in the light of day, well dressed in front of his home. The journalist who has come to speak with Wright is a white man who says that the filming will be quick and simple. He has no regard for the emotional and psychological pain that Wright endures. The journalist appears on-screen briefly as the camera pans left to the camera operator, a young Black man, about Till’s age, who exchanges glances with Wright. It’s not clear what is in Wright’s mind when he sees the operator. However, as the journalist advises him to pretend the camera isn’t there, Wright may be reminded of his nephew who is not there and who was young and talented like the camera operator. Will this young man be the next to die? Does he have a future in Money, Mississippi? This allusion to Till in the final scene indicates the perpetual afterlife of the Till lynching and the ongoing cycle of lynching in which Black men are sacrificed at any moment to uphold American traditions.
During the postscreening discussion, UC Irvine alum Kayla Lacy asked: “When does a lynching end?” It’s a brilliant question that forces consideration of the afterlife of a lynching. Thinking about the ongoing relevance of the Emmett Till lynching, I was reminded of the role of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, gave the original casket from Emmett Till’s burial to the museum. It is on view in a small gallery separated from all other artifacts. The security officers assigned to the gallery take ownership and pride in the space. Like the Wrights’ home, it is a sacred space in which visitors are carefully watched and required to act with respect. Essentially, the gallery ushers visitors into a place where they physically engage with the object in a ritual of mourning. However, this is just one way in which the afterlife of Till’s lynching is expressed. His murder haunts us because justice cannot be done. Till’s life was taken, and his murderers lived freely. The spectacle of his death is still celebrated as a triumph of white supremacy.2 Lynching is still practiced and celebrated.
My Nephew Emmett shows the everyday life of a loving family before a lynching. By depicting how quickly the quiet sanctity of home can be destroyed, it presents a national tragedy as a personal one. Emmett Till was Mose Wright’s nephew. But Wright’s love was not enough to save him.
Bridget R. Cooks is associate professor in the Department of Art History and the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on African American artists, Black visual culture, and museum criticism. Cooks has worked in museum education and has curated several exhibitions including Grafton Tyler Brown: Exploring California, Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, and The Black Index. She is author of the book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum.
Milam and Bryant bragged about their actions weeks later to William Bradford Huie for the article, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look, January 24,1956.
The sign marking the site where Till’s body was recovered has been vandalized repeatedly by whites who defend and align themselves with his murderers. See Kayla Epstein, “The Emmett Till Memorial Was Vandalized Again. And Again. And Again. Now, It’s Bulletproof,” Washington Post, October 20, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/20/this-emmett-till-memorial-was-vandalized-again-again-again-now-its-bulletproof/.