Kevin Wilson Jr., learned to write scripts for theater as a young drama student at Hillside High School more than a decade ago.
Now 28, Wilson is an award-winning filmmaker in the prestigious New York University Graduate Film Program, and on Tuesday he learned that his film, “My Nephew Emmett,” has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Wilson learned about the Oscar nomination Tuesday morning during a watch party at his apartment complex in New Jersey. He was joined by family, friends, classmates and members of the film crew who all watched anxiously and erupted into cheers after “My Nephew Emmett” was named one of the five finalists in the Live-Action Short Film Category.
“We were all very nervous, of course,” Wilson said. “When they called our name, we just went crazy.
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“You’ll never get nominated for an Oscar the first time again; it was just an amazing moment,” he continued. “We never made this film for Oscar recognition. We were just focused on telling Emmett Till’s story with integrity and honest and respect to his family. For all of that to happen, for his family to approve and for it to end like this is something beyond our wildest dreams.”
The 2007 Hillside graduate credits his years in the drama program under the direction of Wendell Tabb for his success as a filmmaker.
“Mr. (Wendell) Tabb used to make us write 12 short plays a year, and that’s where I learned how to write,” Wilson said. “He would also have us direct one of them in class, and that’s where I learned how to direct. Mr. Tabb has had a huge impact on my life and my artistry.”
A haunting tale
Wilson wrote, produced and directed the 20-minute short film about the infamous night in 1955 when Till was abducted and murdered just east of Money, Mississippi.
The story is told from the perspective of Mose Wright, Till’s uncle. Wright was forced at gunpoint to give Till to two white men who came looking for his nephew after Carolyn Bryant accused him of assault and whistling at her when he visited her family’s store that afternoon.
“We’re able to be with him as he experiences the doom and the pain of having to make a decision to either allow the boy that you care for to be taken away or have your family be killed,” Wilson said. “That is the decision he had to make in a matter of seconds.”
The film for which Wilson won a student Oscar in 2017 has another Durham angle. The role of Till is played by Joshua Wright, a junior at Voyager Academy who Tabb introduced to Wilson.
Wright, 16, was chosen from among 800 other actors who sought the role.
“I looked at over 800 videos and head shots of kids, and it kept coming back to Joshua Wright,” Wilson said. “He was just perfect for the role because he possessed this kind of innate innocence about him, which you can’t teach. I cannot sing his praises enough.”
Wright, who spent four days with Wilson in Mississippi making the film, learned about the nomination from friends and teachers during school Tuesday. He said a teacher played a 30-second trailer from the film for his class.
“I was excited and surprised,” said Wright. “I just want to really thank Mr. Wendell Tabb for recommending me for the part and Kevin Wilson for giving me the opportunity.”
Mentored by Spike Lee
Wilson got help and advice from one of the movie industry’s heavyweights as he worked to tell Till’s story.
Director Spike Lee, a graduate of the NYU film school, is a professor there and has served as Wilson’s directing professor the past two years.
“He mentored me on this project,” Wilson said, noting that the school also produced directors Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and numerous other talented filmmakers. “It’s really nice to be a part of that legacy.”
Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and television production at N.C. A&T University, wrote and produced his first play about Till while a student in Greensboro. That set the stage for what would become the Oscar-nominated “My Nephew Emmett.”
But Wilson’s fascination with the Till murder began much earlier in his life. He first learned about the gruesome death, which help to set off what became the modern civil rights movement, watching civil rights, fair housing and women suffrage documentaries with his mother.
“Since that time, it’s really stayed with me,” Wilson said. “It was something that couldn’t escape me, it became a part of me. So, when it became time for me to start writing and directing, I was naturally drawn to those stories.”
Before his visit to Mississippi to shoot the film, Wilson said he could never understand why African-Americans would want to live in the state with its history of poverty and brutality against blacks.
“I now understand why people love Mississippi,” Wilson said. “When I visited Mississippi and met so many beautiful and warm people, I understood it. It’s such a beautiful landscape, the Delta’s amazing and the food is amazing.”
Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam were eventually charged with the murder. And even though Mose Wright found the courage to testify against them in court, both were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The two later admitted to killing Till in a magazine interview.
Carolyn Bryant (Donham) later remarried and moved to Raleigh. She confessed to historian Tim Tyson, author of “The Blood of Emmett Till,” that she had lied about about Till and the assault.
Wilson said there are many similar stories and it’s important that they are told.
“I think I’m always going to be supporting these types of stories,” Wilson said. “I’m always going to support the telling of Emmett’s story and others as well because there’s so many Emmett Tills. I think we need to continue that conversation just so we don’t forget about what happened.”
The Academy Awards will be broadcast March 4 on ABC.
The nominees in Short Film (Live Action) are “DeKalb Elementary,” “The Eleven O’Clock,” “My Nephew Emmett,” “The Silent Child” and “Watu Wote/All of Us.”