My Nephew Emmett is the powerful short film in line for a win at this year’s 90th Oscar ceremony.
Nominated in the ‘Best Live Action Short’ category, this 2017 film is written and directed by the award-winning Kevin Wilson Jr., an MFA Candidate on New York University’s Graduate Film Program. In 2009 he directed sold-out performances of his debut play, The Emmett Till Story. His live-action short tells the story from the point of view of 64-year-old sharecropper and part-time minister Mose Wright (LB Williams) on his grand-nephew’s last day on earth, 28th August, 1955.
In Jim Crow era Money, Mississippi, the Wrights are a big, loving family – wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy) and a house full of lively, but essentially, good boys – their sons Robert (Chris Steele), Maurice (Dorian Davis), Simeon (Tylon Larry), and his nephew, 14 year old Emmett Louis Till (Joshua Wright). Enjoying summer’s end Emmett is visiting his maternal grand-uncle from his native Chicago. Whilst Emmett and one of his cousins head into nearby Greenwood, Mose is dispatched to the local well. He meets Young Deacon (Austin D James), who drops a casual, but tragically prophetic comment amidst the niceties which changes everyone’s lives forever and serves as one of the last major catalysts to galvanise African Americans into organised protest and campaigning for civil rights.
My Nephew Emmett is a jewel of a film – quiet and haunting, bringing the viewer back to the personal cost to every African American in the super-segregated South. Reminding us of the suffering and nauseating fear that every black adult carried for their children since the dawn of slavery. Whilst there was no longer the threat of them being sold off, the fear of brutality and murder was as acute as ever. At comprehending the meaning of Deacon’s words, Williams manages to convey the death of something vital in Mose.
After sending the returned boys off to bed to have one last night of peaceful sleep, Mose fetches his rifle, loads it and wearily sits waiting.
Wilson Jr. has done a good job with the material which is, even after 62 years, several books and investigations, still apparently unclear. Choosing to make a title character peripheral to the action can be a risky move. But, Wilson Jr. manages to coax a remarkably subtle performance from Williams, ably supported by the rest of the cast.
The original score by Gavin Brivik conveys heart-stopping melancholy, appropriately complementing the on-screen drama with spirituals – ever the soundtrack to the brutality of white supremacy in America. The gorgeous cinematography is at times, the softest aspect of this work.
Where Wilson Jr. perhaps shows his inexperience is in the abduction sequence. The foul-mouthed, armed Roy Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and his half-brother JW Milam (Dane Rhodes) are bullish and one-dimensional and, having emphasised Mose arming himself, the rifle, perhaps a metaphor of the powerlessness of something powerful is lost within the scene. As Emmett and Young Deacon melt into the distance in the back of Bryant’s truck, Wilson Jr. overlays a single line of text, stating that Emmett’s brutalised, mutilated body was recovered from the nearby Tallahatchie River three days later.
With a long shot of the Wright home, a hut, really, a smartly-dressed Mose emerges and heads straight toward us, revealed to be a white journalist (William Perkins) and black cameraman (Malcolm Distroll). Mose begins to speak of the night he saw his nephew Emmett for the last time, and the scene deftly transitions into actual archive footage of Mose Wright himself, giving the same face-to-camera account in 1955. Mose died 1973, aged 83.
My Nephew Emmett‘s closing credits feature 38 thank yous, including Spike Lee and Kasi Lemmons, and acknowledges the 120 GoFundMe investors who made the film possible. Wilson Jr. is the recipient of the 2017 Spike Lee Production Fellowship; the 2017 Ang Lee Scholarship; the 2017 BAFTA HBO Scholarship; and the Tisch School of the Arts Scholarship.
My Nephew Emmett is up against four others chosen from 165 submitted works at this year’s Oscars – DeKalb Elementary (Reed Van Dyk, 2017) – inspired by an actual 911 call placed during a school shooting incident in Atlanta, Georgia, starring African American actress Tarra Riggs; Watu Wote/All of Us (Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen, 2017) – a tale of solidarity based on real events from the Kenya-Somalia territory in 2015 – Adelyne Wairimu leads an all-African cast as Jua; The Eleven O’Clock (Derin Seale and Josh Lawson, 2016); and The Silent Child (Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton, 2017, 20 minutes) based on real events in rural England.
Wilson Jr. has, so far, notched up multiple wins for this film, some of which include the 44th Student Academy Award; the Saatchi & Saatchi ‘Nothing is Impossible Achievement in Film’ Award; the 15th HollyShorts Film Festival Best Director Award and the Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award. It was also chosen to screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 55th New York Film Festival.
My Nephew Emmett premiered on 6th August, 2017, at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, where the Saatchi & Saatchi award was bestowed.
The 90th Oscars take place March 4th 2018.