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Oscar-nominated film about Emmett Till contemplates how racial terror affects those left behind

Kevin Wilson Jr., the director of ‘My Nephew Emmett,’ is still in film school

Kevin Wilson Jr. has spent more than half his life thinking about Emmett Till and the night he was murdered.

A few days from now, he might just win an Oscar for it.

Wilson, 28, is the director of My Nephew Emmett, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film. The film looks at the day Till was kidnapped from the viewpoint of his uncle, Mose Wright, the relative Till was visiting in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

When Wilson was an undergraduate studying journalism and mass communication at North Carolina A&T University, he mounted a play about Till. That one adopted Till’s own perspective as an audacious 14-year-old boy from Chicago going South to visit relatives. Wilson had begun working on the play when he was a 15-year-old student at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which has one of the most respected theater programs in the state.

It’s terrifying, as a black person, to put yourself in the shoes of Till, an innocent snatched from his bed, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River like so much garbage, all because he’d made the mistake of co-existing for a few moments with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

You know the story: Till was at a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Bryant accused him of whistling at her and later lied to federal prosecutors, telling them that Till had touched her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam rode to the Wright house the night of the alleged interaction and took Till at gunpoint. When his broken body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral for the world to see what had happened to him. Till’s body was eventually exhumed and reburied, and his original casket is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learned that story when he was 5 years old. His mother, now 54, had not yet been born when Till was killed, but the story reverberated through her childhood just the same. In 1995, she told it to Wilson, her only child, whom she was raising alone. It was a way of protecting him. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the lynching era: Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve. Wilson has two children of his own, and he plans to educate them similarly.

“It’s still very much relevant because we have, still, people of color, even in present day, who are being killed and no one is being held accountable for it,” Wilson said by phone from Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards. “So I think until we get to the point where a life is taken and we can just automatically say, ‘OK, a life was taken. There’s no debate. Someone is being held accountable for it,’ we have to continue telling those stories.”

Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve.

Although Wilson speaks with the authority of a filmmaker many years his senior, he won’t finish film school at New York University until later this year. He’s one of two Spike Lee protégés contending for awards Sunday night. The other is Mudbound director Dee Rees, who, along with co-writer Virgil Williams, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Lee brought Rees to speak to his class last semester, Wilson said, and he also gave Wilson the funds to finish his film when he came up short in postproduction. Once Wilson decided as an undergraduate that he was more interested in directing than acting, he spent a summer immersing himself in Lee’s work. He watched Do the Right Thing every single day, and he read everything he could find that the famed director had published, including his journals.

Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me fall in love with cinema,” Wilson said.

That love is evident in My Nephew Emmett. Wilson insisted on filming on location in Mississippi, although it upped the production costs, and he treats the story with the intellect and considered beauty that’s typical of the Disciples of Spike. Shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao, My Nephew Emmett forces its audience to think about space and proximity. When Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and Milam (Dane Rhodes) ride on the Wright house and threaten Mose at gunpoint, they do so under the cover of night. There’s no physical distance in this crime — the men are close enough to wet Mose’s face with spittle. So often, the crimes that took place against black people during Jim Crow, whether it was lynching or sexual assault, happened in small towns where victims knew their assailants, a twisted flip side of the way small-town life is often celebrated as simple and bucolic. The Jim Crow era was marked by physical closeness and heavily enforced psychological distance, a theme Rees explores in Mudbound as well.

In My Nephew Emmett, Mose Wright is forced to decide whether to sacrifice Till to his attackers or subject the entire family to similar treatment by refusing to give up his nephew. The threat of sexual assault looms when one of the attackers grabs Mose’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Jasmine Guy.

“I’m a father, and I was curious about that feeling of having to decide between your son, or nephew in this case, and the rest of your family,” Wilson said. “It’s an impossible decision to make. And then what happens after that, after you make that decision. I think that Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home. They didn’t go back to that home after that night. They all moved back up to Chicago eventually.”

My Nephew Emmett is part of a wave of new projects about Till. Taraji P. Henson is producing and starring as Mamie Till in a film that John Singleton is directing. Steven Caple Jr., the director taking over the Creed sequel from Ryan Coogler, is writing an HBO miniseries about Till produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith.

“Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home.”

Wilson is a good example of why it’s worth paying attention to shorts, even if you’re a casual film buff. It’s not always easy to see all of the contenders in one place, and few movie theaters screen them (My Nephew Emmett is available on iTunes). But they can be a good predictor of future success and often offer glimpses of a director’s storytelling acumen because their brevity demands discipline. For example, Roger Ross Williams, the director who won the Oscar for best documentary short for Music by Prudence, went on to create the tender and inventive feature-length documentary Life, Animated. Damien Chazelle initially made Whiplash as a short before turning it into the feature-length project of the same name. It won three Oscars — for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), sound mixing, and film editing — and was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Wilson is now trying to find funding for his next project, a feature-length thriller. Sunday, he’ll be in a room full of people with the deep pockets to help him.

“My goal is to be able to make a feature film every year and do television in between or commercials in between and plays in between,” Wilson said. “To be creating every day.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.