Till: A Story Of Grief And Resilience In An Unequal World
When Chinonye Chukwu was approached to direct Till, the new film about civil rights activist Mamie Till-Mobley and the lynching of her son Emmett Till in the 1950s, she had just premiered her breakout feature Clemency at the Sundance Film Festival (where she became the first Black woman to win the festival’s esteemed Grand Jury Prize). For Clemency, about a warden played by Alfre Woodard, Chukwu had delved deep into the world of the prison system. After she emerged to widespread acclaim, she wasn’t sure she had the capacity to take on the brutal story of Till’s murder and, in the aftermath, his mother’s grief and activism. “It was navigating that seismic shift in my life, and also my need for emotional recalibration after that deeply immersive journey, that made me think: ‘Am I ready to start making Till?’” she says.
When she met with producers, she came armed with a series of demands to which she didn’t think they would agree. She needed to write the screenplay, and do so in a way that foregrounded Mamie, played by Danielle Deadwyler. She refused to show “physical violence inflicted upon Black bodies”. And she wanted to “begin and end the story with joy”. Her requests were met, and what she made is a work that is devastating and instructive in the precise way it tackles one of the most horrific events in American history.
The act of witnessing is crucial to the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi after interacting with a white woman in a grocery store. Mamie demanded that her son’s body be shipped back to his hometown of Chicago and that the press and the public see the atrocities inflicted on it. In the sequence where Mamie sees Emmett’s corpse for the first time, Chukwu shields it behind a table in the morgue while Mamie takes it in before the camera pans up, revealing what she is looking at. “It’s honouring that moment that she has,” Chukwu says, adding, “I made sure that scene is humanising Emmett’s body and not objectifying it. We take our time and see Emmett’s body as Mamie sees it.”
Depicting his mother is, after all, the reason Chuwku wanted to tell this powerful story. “What drew me to Till was the real human negotiations Mamie had to make, the intention behind her strategies and decision making, the complexities of being a 33-year-old Black woman and a middle-class Black woman and the layers to her community and layers to her world,” she says. “Who is this person who is so often not centred in this story?” It’s that curiosity that has driven the filmmaker to present the inner workings of death row and introduce a vital activist to a new generation in a way that felt real.
Visiting the locations where the events took place and speaking with people who knew Mamie only deepened Chukwu’s calling. “It takes these giants off the historical pedestal, reminding me that these are actual human beings,” she says. “It made me that much more intentional about humanising everyone.”
Till is in US theatres now and will be released worldwide from January 2023
Esther Zuckerman is an entertainment journalist whose work has been published by Thrillist, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and Refinery29