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Filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr. on Documenting History: “You’ve Got to Make Tough Choices”

Kevin Wilson Jr. is an independent filmmaker who latest is a short based on a tragic historical event. We recently had the chance to ask him about the movie. Here’s what he had to say.

Hello Kevin and thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Your latest short film is called My Nephew Emmett, about an uncle who tries to protect his young nephew from dangerous men in 1955 Mississippi. It’s based on real events. Tell me how you got involved with the story?

My mother was instrumental in developing my desire to learn more about my history and culture as an African American.  When I was as young as four or five, she was showing me a number of documentaries about the African American experience, particularly slavery through the Civil Rights Movement. When I was five, my mother showed me a photograph of the corpse of Emmett Till. It’s such an iconic, but horrific image. His body was so badly beaten that it was unrecognizable.  That image stayed with me so when I found my passion for writing and directing, I was naturally drawn to his story.

What was appealing for you about the short film format?

As a Graduate Film Student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, we are required to make short films, so that’s why My Nephew Emmett is 20 minutes long.  I think the short film format presents many challenges logistically, financially, and cinematically.  In many ways, writing short screenplays can be more challenging than writing a feature screenplay.  It’s tough to figure out how you’re going to tell a complete story that also could very well be a feature film in under 20 minutes.  It’s a wonderful challenge though that strengthens one’s chops and prepares them for a career in storytelling.  It’s also a less expensive way to show financiers that you’re capable of telling a compelling story thus convincing them to give you funds for a larger project.

You choose to tell the story a bit unconventionally, letting it unfold from the uncle’s perspective rather than the actual subject of the story. Could you tell me about how this idea came about? (Free reign here to talk about the film, its origins and inspirations)

It was quite personal actually.  Around the time that I started developing the short film, I’d just become a father to two boys. When you’re black in America and you bring children into the world, you know that you’re going to have to have challenges that others simply won’t have. That’s not to say raising children isn’t challenging unless you’re black, but when you’re black your experiences in America are unique. I wanted to explore the feeling of helplessness that Emmett’s guardian at the time must have felt when having no choice but to relinquish control and give his nephew up to two men who meant harm for him. For me, film has become about exploration and discovery and I felt exploring this story through the eyes of a guardian could be more compelling, add another layer of tension and also help me understand Mose’s decisions as a parent myself. Mose really had an impossible choice to make, but it’s worth recognizing his strength. Had he not given Emmett up, his entire family would’ve been killed. When backed against the wall, he made the only choice he could have. Days after the abduction, he spoke to media and accused Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam ON CAMERA of kidnapping and killing Emmett. It’s important that we understand the gravity of this action. Mose could have been killed for doing this, but he was strong and courageous enough to identify them anyway. He’s a hero.

You avoid many of the traditional moments of physical violence seen in these types of biographical stories, rather letting everything be implied. I think this is really effective since it allows us to use our imaginations, which can be far more influential. Was this a conscious choice from the start?

Yes. Absolutely. I think many of us are aware of the violence Emmett had to endure and quite frankly, I’m not necessarily thrilled about seeing black people brutalized on camera these days. We see it often enough when footage of police killings are released almost weekly. Also, Mose Wright was not present for Emmett’s torture and murder. I wanted to live with Mose for the duration of the film and experience what he felt. To me, allowing a viewer to create the image in their mind is much more horrific than showing it. That’s also why I didn’t show the iconic photograph of Emmett Till’s corpse. I also want people to leave my film and engage in their own research.  Usually when I talk about my film with audiences after a screening, I encourage them to Google the photograph of his body.

Let’s talk about L. B. Williams, who plays Mose Wright, the uncle. His is an exceptional performance. He sadly passed away after completion, however I would be greatly interested in hearing your thoughts about his casting and take on the character.

L.B. Williams is my hero. I can say with confidence that had it not been for the physical and mental sacrifices he made while making this film, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did. L.B. didn’t ask to work on this project, I sought him out and had to convince him work on the project. We met a few times for coffee and discussed various drafts of the script and my vision for the project and after a few meetings, he agreed to play Mose. One night before I met L.B., I was watching Ernest Dickerson‘s “Juice”  starring Tupac Shakur and there was one scene in particular where Tupac places some money in the pocket of his father as he sits in a chair staring out. L.B. Williams played that role. I saw the pain in his eyes and knew that whoever I cast as Mose needed to have a story behind their eyes since they’d be sitting in solitude for most of the film. When I met with L.B., I’d ask him a question and he’d stare off and think for several moments before answering. There was something about his look, there was something happening behind his eyes that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but knew I needed to capture. A few meetings later, he told me that he was dying of cancer, but wanted to do the film nonetheless.  While filming, you could see how much physical pain a normal 12-hour work day on a film set was causing him and you could see the mental pain playing such a role caused him, but he gave of himself selflessly. I am forever indebted to his sacrifice. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet another man like him.

Since this is based on a real story and had tremendous influence on the civil rights movement, how important was accuracy in putting this to film?

Historical accuracy is always a priority when making a film that’s based on a true story, but it’s also a challenge to fit something that took place over an extended period of time into a film that has it’s own time constraints. You’ve got to make tough choices about what to include and exclude. Also, I never enjoyed watching films set during the Civil Rights Movement that were regurgitations of history books or moments that we were already aware of. I prefer to consume and create intimate moments that we’ve not seen or experienced. This is why I captured Mose in a bathtub, pumping water at a well, sitting on his couch thinking, lying awake in bed thinking. I think finding a balance between historical accuracy and creating a piece of art that people will enjoy consuming is always a challenge, but one that I welcome.

In my review, I mention the importance of revisiting history, and how film offers particularly significant opportunities to do so. As a filmmaker, is this something you find yourself drawn to pursuing?

Absolutely. Since I can remember, I’ve been naturally drawn to work that is a reflection of some historic event whether that work was a narrative feature film, a short film, a documentary, a painting, a book, or a song. I’m an old soul. This is why I love Todd Haynes‘ work so much. “Far From Heaven” was a perfect film in my opinion because it revisited history, but did so in a way that was intimate, honest, and timely. Cinema specifically affords you the opportunity to do that in a way few mediums can. I of course will make many contemporary pieces in my career, but I think I’ll always find my way back to exploring history in my work in some way.

You may not know entirely, but are there plans for wider distribution of My Nephew Emmett? I would love to be able to tell readers when and where they can view the film.

I’ve been discussing distribution offers with a number of companies, but right now I’m waiting a bit to ensure that it lives on the best possible platform. The way that the industry is evolving, these days that almost certainly means making it available online. My hope is for it to be available to as many people globally as possible.

I understand the film is being shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, which is well-deserved. That’s surely got be exciting. Don’t really have a question, but rather a congratulations. Any thoughts on this?

Thank you so much! It’s such an exciting time. I never made this film expecting to receive this kind of Oscar consideration, but I’m so grateful because it gives more people an opportunity to see the film. Oscar nominated short films are usually released as a compilation in theaters so it’d be a really awesome opportunity for a wider audience to learn and experience Emmett’s story. Fingers crossed for that!

What’s next for you?

I’m writing every day. Right now I’m developing my first feature film which is a psychological thriller that I’m excited to be shooting this coming summer. Other than that, I’m writing a lot so that I can be creating and releasing content at all times. That’s the goal.

On our website, we dedicate a lot of content to great moments in movie, discussing their influence and impact. Are there any movie moments that have been important to you as a filmmaker?

One of my favorite movie moments is in Norman Jewison‘s “In The Heat of the Night”  starring Sidney Poitier.  Virgil Tibbs played by Mr. Poitier is questioning a white man who he believes is connected to a murder. The film is set in Mississippi in the 1960s so white men, especially ones from this man’s generation become quite offended at the “nerve” of a black man to look them in the eye, much less question their involvement in a crime. The man slaps Tibbs across the face and Tibbs in turn slaps him back. It was a significant moment in Cinema that I believe empowered people of color and said “You’re not going to just walk over me.” I’m all about empowerment and folks taking up for themselves. I don’t enjoy films where characters just roll over and wallow in pity or feel sorry for themselves.

Thank you again for talking with me. I wish you the best of luck with My Nephew Emmett and hope I have the chance to speak with you again some time. 

Thank you so much!  It means a lot that you’d take the time to talk with me about my film. Hopefully we’ll have more conversations about more of my work in the not so distant future!