This past Thanksgiving, I traveled to North Carolina to spend time with my mother. The lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible for me to travel and see her for nearly a year, so I traveled south down the dark, tree-lined road of I-85 with a great deal of anticipation. When I finally arrived, one of the many tasks I’d been given over the holiday weekend was to go through several boxes of old VHS tapes, pick out what I wanted to preserve, and leave the rest for the Dumpster. I spent a small bit of time rummaging through the tapes and began reflecting on my childhood. Most of the tapes were old VHS recordings of television programs from the early 1990s, programs my mother had used to educate me on Black American history, racial division, anti-Black violence, and the ongoing struggle for human dignity. By engaging in such a meaningless task by my mother’s account, I was being forced to contend with my earliest memories of image: the lynching of Emmett Till and the brutality of Black bodies.
I have vivid recollections of my mother sitting me down when I was five years old and showing me the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, explaining to me what had happened to him, why it had happened, and how the monsters responsible for his gruesome murder were never held accountable. I remember that just two miles from my mother’s home I’d been called a “nigger” by a white second-grade student as I walked to my first-grade class and that I was only prepared to handle that situation because of those earlier conversations about Emmett Till and other victims of white supremacist violence. Those experiences, those conversations, the television documentaries that I’d been forced to watch time and time again, and the photograph of Emmett that sparked nationwide outrage and ultimately galvanized the American civil rights movement remain deeply ingrained in me and continue to inform my filmmaking.
I’d written and directed artistic retellings of Emmett Till’s story a number of times in two different mediums. My first depiction was a play. As a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student, I’d produced and directed the play at my university and told it from the point of view of Emmett Till and his young cousins Wheeler Parker Jr. and Simeon Wright. Nearly a decade later, I released my cinematic interpretation of Emmett’s story told from the point of view of Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright. At the time, I’d recently become a father and was deeply invested in centering the story on the intimate moments in Emmett’s family and home life, something that goes largely ignored when dealing with stories of the victims of lynching and anti-Black violence whether narratively by filmmakers or in news by journalists. I wanted Moses, Emmett, and their families to be human. I wanted to show Emmett’s smile and watch him learn how to use cologne. I wanted to show Moses Wright being embraced and taking a bath. I wanted to show Black characters being still, sitting in deep contemplation, and meditating as opposed to violently reacting to dramatic scenarios or being victims, something surprisingly rare when it comes to the portrayal of Black people in cinema. After all, that is what Mose Wright experienced on the darkest night of 1955. After Emmett’s abduction, he sat in darkness and in silence, waiting, trembling, his heart pounding, sitting up with hope as the headlights from each passing car cut through darkness, hoping that one of those cars would return his nephew; alas none of them did. While researching for My Nephew Emmett, I was sent a number of 1955 JET Magazine issues that were written during and after J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant’s trial (if you could call it a trial). One article recalled a night after Moses Wright’s testimony, when he’d left his empty home for the night and went to his church up the road to pray. He fell asleep in the church pews, and when he returned home later, he found that it’d been burglarized and ransacked. The strength that Moses, Elizabeth, and their children had to muster to accuse and testify against Emmett Till’s murderers moved me; it was another part of the story I felt hadn’t received its due attention. That became another part of my focus: figuring out ways to create a meditative depiction of untold moments in this iconic story. For me, it’s an important entryway into stories that portray violence against Black people. I’m interested in humanizing people so that those watching can have something visceral to grab hold of. It was my goal to use every cinematic tool in my arsenal to accomplish this. I knew that if I could use off-screen sound to create tension with the sound of a truck pulling up to a house on a gravel road in the middle of the night, people would connect; we all know that sound, and we all know what we’d feel if we heard it at two thirty in the morning. That was the other part of my focus, to make people feel. While making My Nephew Emmett, it was important to me that people were moved emotionally by this story in a way that they hadn’t before so that they could find a way connect it to something they’d experienced or observed in their own lives. In my mind, if they could make that personal connection, they could be moved to make contributions to the struggle long after the movie ends.
Scholars have studied, debated, and analyzed Emmett Till’s story and others like it for decades. They’ve examined the vestiges of Jim Crow, decades of lynchings, and their parallels to anti-Black violence in our contemporary world. Often in these interrogations, cinematic portrayals come under the microscope. Scholars converge and either praise or criticize the methods and points of view used by artists to portray a particular story, and that certainly has its place. Cinema has the power to change our world, inspire paradigm-shifting thought, create depictions of people and cultures geographically out of reach to others, and alter the dialogue about stories like Emmett’s and so many others. There is much power in image making, so criticism and an examination of artistic intention are important. For me, though, it’s more important not to lose sight of my ultimate purpose as an artist: to touch people, to move people, and to inspire change one story and one frame at a time. It’s what takes me back to the early 1990s and reminds me of my earliest education on the Black freedom struggle while cleaning out a box of VHS tapes, and I imagine it’s what will continue to inspire our next generation of educators, filmmakers, lawyers, and politicians who will lead the charge and make our world truly free.
Kevin Wilson Jr. is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker based in New York City. His film My Nephew Emmett, a twenty-minute short film based on the true story of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the Ninetieth Academy Awards.