On March 29th, after passing overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act—sixty-seven years after the Black teenager was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by two white men angry over Till’s supposed whistling at one of their wives. He was just fourteen at the time of his murder.
An all-White Mississippi jury exonerated his alleged killers, even though they later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview, for which they were paid a healthy sum. In her grief, Till’s mother, Mamie Mobley, did the perhaps unthinkable and not only allowed but encouraged an open casket at her son’s funeral so the world could witness the racist horror visited upon her only child. Granted, not everything changed overnight, but Till’s slaying did stoke the fires of the civil rights era.
The story of Mamie and Emmett’s relationship, and the bravery she exerted in the wake of his death, have been recounted in “Till,” a new film directed and co-written by Chinonye Chukwu.
“This film is about Mamie’s journey; it’s never been told on the big screen before,” Chukwu said during a phone interview. “Mamie’s evolution and activist consciousness—and what she was fighting for and fighting against—is very much on par [with] our present reality that more contemporary organizers and activists are continuing.”
Chukwu said the white supremacy that contributed to Till’s murder remains with us, and thus the film “Till” serves also to remind people in 2022 to continue to be vigilant against its stain on our present.
“There’s still a level of empowerment that we can embody as Black people and people of color, as anyone that is part of a marginalized group,” she said. “I think Mamie’s story shows us what it looks like to fight, but also to stand in your activism and in your joy. And people across generations can really resonate with that.”
Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall star as the mother and son at the center of “Till.” Chukwu described the chemistry between the two actors as entirely natural, with young Jalyn bringing to his role a charisma that was reminiscent of Emmett Till himself.
“That kind of maternal-son dynamic between Mamie and Emmett was full throttle in the initial meeting together,” said Deadwyler, nudging her young costar to describe “what you did to charm me.”
Laughing, Jalyn responded, “Just being my fun, charismatic self.”
“Then we just topped that. And that’s the joy you want to see between Mamie and Emmett,” added Deadwyler.
However, the film is far from a joyful experience in the scenes following Emmett’s trip down to Mississippi to visit his cousins. Despite his mother’s warnings to mind himself, Emmett perhaps too innocently informs a White shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) that she looks “like a movie star,” and follows it up with a whistle. A few days later, Emmett is dragged from his uncle’s home, at gunpoint, by the woman’s husband and his brother-in-law.
Jalyn shares that he hadn’t met the two actors hired to portray Emmett’s kidnappers until the day the harrowing scene was shot. Jalyn informed the actors that, to fully honor Till’s memory, they should make the kidnapping as realistic as possible, including verbal epithets the two likely yelled at the 14-year-old as they took him away.
“I told [the actors], ‘Whatever you think you need to do to show the absolute truth, please do it.’ We all wanted this project to be as honest and heartfelt as possible,” Jalyn said, adding that the scene was only shot a few times on the set. “There are certain things you can expect because you know what’s going to happen, but this was a whole different realm. Everything that happened there was like real time.”
Jalyn said that you can read about Emmett Till in history books as much as you wish, but what was brought home to him in portraying the teenager was that he was, for all intents and purposes, still a child.
“You have to remember that this was a 14-year-old kid, who was not unlike any other kid today,” the actor said. “He was somebody who was happy and wanted everyone to smile and have a good time. So it was kind of easy for me to emote that [while] ultimately [respecting] the memory of Emmett.”
In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Till’s body arrives back in Chicago. The photographs of how badly he was disfigured are readily found, and deserve to be witnessed (just one of them is here.) For the scene of Mamie receiving her son’s remains, director Chukwu says she had talked it through with Deadwyler several times, but only as cameras rolled was the actress able to behold the blighted dummy that stood in for Till’s body—which added to the raw emotion of the cinematic moment.
“As a Black woman, really focusing on Mamie’s journey is making the choice to show the physical violence that was inflicted upon Emmett,” Chukwu said. “Although my choice to show the body was an extension of Mamie’s decision…I knew that was a choice I needed to make because that would be honoring Mamie.”
“Chinoya and I had talked about it thoroughly, so I had already interfaced with it in a different way,” Deadwyler said of the scene, adding that, based on Mamie’s memoirs, the moment provided a tremendous emotional release for the mother of the murdered teen. “She exhausted herself because she knew she had to detach and approach looking at the body in a more scientific manner—as if [Till] were a stranger.
“There was no one else to lean on to do that. It’s not a club you want to be in. And I am a mother; I have a son who is almost thirteen years old. I am a person of the South, and I know the legacy of the experience. So I drove all of that into that scene.”
“The layers of emotions and complexities that [Deadwyler] is able to communicate with just her eyes is incredible,” added her director, Chukwu.
In another echo of how Emmett Till’s story is not just past but also present, the film “Till” presents a moment from the trial of Till’s murderers in which a law enforcement officer accuses Mamie of “faking” her son’s death. It was gaslighting before gaslighting, and long prior to the extensive cyberbullying of today.
“That’s why the story continues to be relevant today,” Chukwu said.
When people leave the theater after experiencing the rather difficult experience that is “Till,” Chukwu said she hopes they will ask themselves what they can do to better the world around them.
“I think this film could inspire people to ask how they can continue to grow and evolve in their own activist consciousness,” she said. “And it can inspire people to learn more about the history that’s very much tied to our present.”
“Mamie gives it to you with the final speech quote: We are each other’s business at the end of the day,” added Deadwyler, who has fashioned Mamie’s avatar onscreen.
“Till” opens today