In August 1955, a teenage boy, Emmett Till, lost his life to the hands of racism, hatred, and brutality, posthumously becoming an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Kevin Wilson Jr.’s “My Nephew Emmett” recently told Emmett’s story from the perspective of his great-uncle, Mose Wright, from whose home the boy was abducted from. With a new talent like Joshua Wright, who plays Emmett, and famous actress Jasmine Guy, of A Different World fame, appearing as Emmett’s aunt, Elizabeth Wright, L.B. Williams takes on Mose’s role.Kevin Wilson, Jr. is an MFA Candidate at NYU. Wilson first emerged as a rising talent in 2009 when he directed multiple sold out performances of his debut play The Emmett Till Story, a brutal depiction of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. With powerful imagery and a look at a horrifying moment in American history, the film’s message resonates today. We’ve interviewed director Kevin Wilson Jr. about the film.
What inspired you to tell Emmett’s story from his great-uncle’s perspective?
The inspiration for telling Emmett’s story from that specific perspective came from me becoming a new father. I have two young boys and I was very curious about the feeling of having to watch imposters take and torture a child that you’re responsible for. The feeling of helplessness that not just Mose Wright, but any parent or guardian feels in that situation is one I felt was worth exploring. It’s a perspective that I’ve not seen very often cinematically. I’ve been studying Emmett’s story for over a decade and I’ve consumed many plays, films, and books about his death. Many were recreations of what happened, but I wanted to explore the most intimate accounts of the incident. I was interested in creating a work that wasn’t necessarily an adaptation of something we’ve already seen or read.
What sources did you use for the film (i.e. the real-life footage of Mose)?
I was fortunate to be in touch with a filmmaker named Keith Beauchamp. Keith produced and directed the documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” that was released in 2005 and was responsible for reopening the FBI Investigation on the Till case. Keith provided many resources and intimate accounts of the case that I would’ve otherwise never had access to. His documentary and a book written by Emmett Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright titled “Simeon’s Story” were my biggest resources as I crafted the film.
What was it like working with Jasmine Guy?
It was a blessing. It was truly a blessing to have an opportunity to work with Jasmine Guy. She’s a legend. I wrote the role with her in mind because she bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Wright, Emmett Tills aunt. When I reached out to her agent and offered her the role, I shockingly heard back and was told that she wanted to do the film. I was always told to reach for the moon so that’s what I did and thankfully it paid off. Beyond being such a talented actor, she is such a joy to be around. She has so much wisdom and shares it generously.
Can you explain the imagery of the ending sequence more in depth?
Sure! Part of that is actually connected to a moment that I wrote into the script, but couldn’t afford to shoot. In the scene where Mose sinks under the water in his bathtub, in the script he imagines himself descending in a vast body of water and coming across the body of his nephew, Emmett Till in that water. It shocks him back into reality and he pops out of the bathtub. However, because that shot was going to cost me tens of thousands of dollars to execute, I decided to make that moment audible. Later, my animator and I discussed my vision for the end credits and determined that recreating that moment through animation would be the perfect way to insert my personal insights about racism in America. When we see these figures slowly ascending from the darkness and into the light revealing a recreation of Emmett’s mutilated face, I’m trying to symbolically parallel the horrors and hatred that racism inflict on the innocent slowly being dragged into the light. We’re seeing a lot of that today. Hopefully it remains in the light so we can continue to deal with it.
Emmett’s murder is not directly shown in the film; what was behind that decision?
I didn’t want to make a 20 minute regurgitation of facts about Emmett’s murder that we’re already aware of or facts that we can find in history books or on the internet. My vision from the beginning was to create a short film with intimate moments that transition into a night of tension for a man anticipating danger. I’ve also seen many films lately that have shown black people being brutalized and murdered without any relief. We can turn on the news every day and see images of black men and women being gunned down or beaten by the police. As I was writing my script, I began to grow tired of those images and felt they didn’t serve any purpose or elevate black people in any way. If a story calls for it, I absolutely think it’s necessary to show those images and perhaps in a feature film about Emmett Till, it would be necessary (especially if told from Emmett’s perspective). “My Nephew Emmett” however is not just about the murder of Emmett Till. It is a film about an 64 old man who deals with the pain of not being able to protect his nephew and the STRENGTH he finds after the abduction to be able to identify Emmett’s killers; an action that nearly cost him his life. In my mind, jumping from the Uncle’s perspective to show Emmett being tortured would’ve been a grave mistake. Plus, Emmett’s family who I have a great deal of respect and sensitivity for actually saw the film and shouldn’t have to relive that specific moment. I also wanted to create something that would encourage further research and conversation. So far, many people I’ve spoken with have gone on to do their own personal research about Emmett’s death after watching the film. I felt that if I’d explained and showed everything in the film, I would’ve destroyed the opportunity for further reflection and education beyond the movie.
Emotionally, what were the hardest scenes to film?
Surprisingly, the opening scene of the film when Emmett was being taught how to apply cologne was the most emotional scene for me. Inside, I was in pain because I’m watching this young innocent child prepare to go out for a night of fun not knowing that hours later he’d be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Seeing his smile, how much fun he was having with his cousins, the respect and love he had for his Uncle, and realizing that in a matter of hours, this beautiful face would be beaten so badly that it’d be unrecognizable– it was a lot. There were other emotional scenes for the cast members, especially the abduction scenes. For me however, that light moment broke me.
What other projects do you have in development?
I’m currently developing my debut feature film. It’s a psychological thriller that I plan to shoot in the summer of 2018. I’m also excited about reading scripts by other writers that I can dig my teeth into. I’m excited to get to work!