In 1955, Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old Chicago boy, was tortured and murdered by White racists in Mississippi. Lynchings against Black Americans in the Deep South were most prevalent in the years between the Civil War and World War II – a recent study put the overall death toll between 1865 and 1950 to nearly 6,500 nationwide. Even in the 1950s, however, there were two dozen incidents.
Even in her grief, Till’s mother Mamie Till Mobley made sure her son’s murder would not be overlooked, insisting on a public funeral with an open casket; tens of thousands were there and Mobley made the pictures of the boy’s disfigured corpse public. Mobley’s decision to show the brutality inflicted upon her son added fuel to the Civil Rights movement. After the killers – who later admitted to the crime to Look magazine but were never punished – were found not guilty by an all-White jury in Mississippi, Mobley became a powerful speaker for the cause.
The story still resonates today, but for years it has been part of the history books, memorialized in black-and-white photos. Now Chinonye Chukwu has co-written and directed “Till,” a powerful drama starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett and Whoopi Goldberg that brings both Mamie and Emmett vividly to life.
The story still resonates today, but for years it has been part of the history books, memorialized in black-and-white photos. Now Chinonye Chukwu has co-written and directed “Till,” a powerful drama that brings both Mamie and Emmett to life.
Chukwu’s previous film, “Clemency,” was a quiet and nuanced film that looked at the toll the death penalty takes on those forced to administer it; this time around she is tackling a major story on a broader canvas, aided by Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie and a talented supporting cast that features Whoopi Goldberg, Frankie Faison and John Douglas Thompson.
Chukwu spoke by phone recently about making the film and ensuring that it feels relevant to modern audiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Were you surprised the movie had never gotten made before?
I wasn’t shocked why it took so long. People have been trying for over 20 years to make the film and it’s a challenge, but I do wonder if in any of those attempts they were trying to make the film of Mamie and her journey. Black women and their contributions in history and movements and even in present-day stories aren’t written and are sidelined. I knew that telling the story from Mamie’s perspective and her emotional story was the only way to tell it.
Q. But you also make sure to bring Emmett alive in the early scenes, to make him a person, not just a symbol.
It was important that we see him as a human being – we see him as a boy with a personality and we saw the love that exists between Mamie and Emmett and that was critical in order to understand and feel what his absence really meant for Mamie. I wanted audiences to feel his absence beyond just a photograph.
Q. When Mamie sees Emmett’s casket at the train station and breaks down she says, “My boy can’t breathe.” Was that something she said or were you connecting this lynching to the more recent murders of Black men like Eric Garner and George Floyd?
Mamie didn’t say those exact words in that moment but that was her emotional experience, which she reflected on later in interviews and her writing. But it was in part a conscious effort to connect the film to the present realities we live in.
Q. Were there other ways you sought to draw connections between past and present?
It is a story so deeply tied to our present. I made creative decisions to lessen any kind of generational difference or time period distance between audiences and the film. I had conversations with my composer about the music feeling fresh and modern and exciting and propulsive to take away the feeling of a period film.
And I used a bright color palette to communicate the vibrancy and beauty and boldness of Black people in their community but it also a humanizing color to what we have seen as black-and-white images in photographs and textbooks.
Q. You refused to further traumatize the audience by showing the beating and murder of Emmett Till. Was that omission something you planned all along?
I knew that before signing on for the film. That was a non-negotiable. I told them I’m not doing this unless there’s no physical violence.
Q. When “Clemency” came out, you told me in an interview, “To fight the change, you have to be hopeful to imagine the possibilities beyond our world.” Were you surprised that Mamie was able to see a future in those days after her boy’s lynching?
That’s what makes her journey so extraordinary. It was definitely my intention for audiences to feel some sense of hope and possibility by the end of the film. It doesn’t end with the verdict and that verdict doesn’t take away from our power and from our own possibilities on our journey. And the work continues. What we want that work to be might not happen in my lifetime but we do what we can and pass it on to future generations.
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Q. Will there be a community engagement component, showing the movie to activists and in schools?
That’s already in the works. There was no way we were going to make this film unless it is so deeply interconnected with schools and educators and activists and freedom fighters and politicians. We’re creating strategies to galvanize and create a movement using the film as a tool.
Q. You mentioned politicians. Given the recent battles over teaching about racism in America, are you worried that there’ll be pushback from politicians on your plans?
I’ll put it this way: that doesn’t concern me or scare me enough to not push forward. We’ve got to do what we can no matter what, and we have to hope for the possibility of change.