Oscar Shorts 2018: My Nephew Emmett

This searing portrait of racism in 1950s America is worthy of its Oscar nomination, writes

With cinema’s most-hyped awards show creeping up on us, Nouse turns its attention to an oft-ignored Academy Award: Best Live-Action Short Film. With access to some of the 5 films nominated, our team will be tackling them in a series of interviews and reviews. From thrillers with timely racial commentary to terrorism and religious conflict, there is plenty of wonderful work to see. The final winner will be announced at the Oscars ceremony on 4th March.

Image: Kevin Wilson Jr./Kevin Wilson/Lauren L. Owen/TaNisha Fordham/Austin D. James/Marttise Hill/Julius Pryor/London Flair PR

Kevin Wilson Jr.’s Oscar-nominated short My Nephew Emmett is a searing drama tackling racism in America’s Deep South. It is a film of almost unbearable tension coupled with a story so sad, so enraging and so beautifully told that it will linger long in the memory.

My Nephew Emmett is the story of a tragedy, the most tragic part of it being that it is based on real events. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago went to visit his uncle Mose Wright in Mississippi. A city boy in the especially racist Southern country, Emmett was accused of whistling at and flirting with a white woman (she later admitted her claims were fabricated). This led to the woman’s husband and another man hunting down Emmett at Mose’s house. Emmett Till’s name became well-known in the Civil Rights movement and Wilson Jr.’s film does justice to these horrific events.

Image: Kevin Wilson Jr./Kevin Wilson/Lauren L. Owen/TaNisha Fordham/Austin D. James/Marttise Hill/Julius Pryor/London Flair PR

The tone and setting of the film is established early on, with crickets and guitar music helping to create a common background noise that makes later silences seem all the more terrifying. Another thing Wilson Jr. is keen to establish early on is the character of Mose Wright, essentially the lead of the film. He is clearly a compassionate and decent man, joking with Emmett and caring for the multiple children in his house with great affection. This moral integrity and concern for others is excellently embodied by L. B. Williams.

From the moment Mose suspects that Emmett might be in danger, the film becomes a tightly wound ball of tension. Wilson Jr., along with DP Laura Valladao and composer Gavin Brivik, do a lot with a little, allowing the unease to sink in whilst Williams conveys worry and fear more and more palpably as danger creeps up. When the racists arrive at the house, they bring with them a noticeable menace. Dane Rhodes gives detestable aggression and unfettered racism to his character, whilst Ethan Leaverton is no less detestable in a more weasely role.

What is so impressive about My Nephew Emmett is not just its ability to create tension and compassion for its characters in a very short space of time, but also its fascinating, saddening portrayal of racial hatred. As soon as Mose hears who Emmett whistled at, it strikes the fear of God into him; the implication is that any involvement across racial barriers equals trouble and he knows it. When the racists arrive at the house, they seem weary and almost reluctant, with one even asking Mose, “You think this is fun for me?” They are behaving as if this is something they just have to do. They aren’t carrying out an individually racist attack, they are just carrying out what the deeply ingrained racism of the region tells them to do. A black man does not look at a white woman like that and get away with it, simple as. This knowledge filters through to everyone, even Emmett. He may be naïve of the extent of the social restrictions in Mississippi, but he sure knows what it means when two angry white men turn up in the middle of the night.

Image: Kevin Wilson Jr./Kevin Wilson/Lauren L. Owen/TaNisha Fordham/Austin D. James/Marttise Hill/Julius Pryor/London Flair PR

The most gut-wrenchingly sad thing about this is the way everyone accepts it. Mose tries to offer himself up, his wife Elizabeth offers money, but they know this won’t work. They have to stand and watch as Emmett is taken. They are told he will be “taught” and come back – a lie that is almost as galling as the abuse itself. Worst of all is the resignation Emmett shows to his fate. Joshua Wright lends him an innocence and youth that make his lack of resistance more upsetting. He just walks to his place in the back of a truck, where he is embraced by a fellow black man. Wilson Jr.’s decision not to show us the violence itself is crucial. Emmett isn’t attacked before our eyes, he just never comes back; this makes his passiveness in the face of suffocating racism all the more powerful.

After all this, when the film would appear to be over, there is a haunting credits sequence. Stunning, beautiful shots of a hand grasping air, a falling body and sinewy black flesh fill the screen as a woman sings “Every little thing will be alright”. We could imagine that it is Emmett’s mother singing these lines; they are the kind of words you use to comfort a child. Except everything wasn’t alright, and perhaps it still isn’t. A breathtaking and heartbreaking film.

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