‘Till’ Director Chinonye Chukwu On Telling Mamie’s Story
The film tells the harrowing but powerful story of one mother’s relentless fight for justice for her son. The director wanted to capture her in all her complexity.
Warning: Mild spoilers for Till below.
In September 1955, Jet Magazine ran a story entitled, “Will Mississippi ‘Whitewash’ The Emmett Till Slaying?” The spread included a grotesquely graphic photo of the battered, mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who, during a summer trip to visit family in Mississippi, was kidnapped, beaten, and lynched by a group of white men who falsely accused him of being inappropriate with a white woman. The picture, an unignorable reminder of the atrocities Black citizens were subjected to in the Jim Crow South, was widely circulated throughout the Black community and beyond, drawing crucial awareness and inciting widespread outrage. Emmett Till, in turn, became a symbol for the necessity of legal reform. Many consider his murder one of the largest catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement.
And yet, many people don’t know much about Emmett Till beyond the headlines. Even fewer know the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s loving mother, who fought tirelessly to get justice for her son. From arranging for the Jet spread to insisting on an open-casket funeral so that the world could plainly face what Emmett had been forced to endure, Mamie made sure that her son’s death would not be in vain. In the aforementioned Jet photo, Mamie stands over her son’s corpse, distraughtly looking at what was now left of her baby boy. Weeks later, she would be in Mississippi, facing relentless taunting from white Southerners as she prepared to take the stand to testify in her son’s murder trial. The resilience she showed — throughout the trial and for decades after, when she continued to fight against racism, pushing for voting rights and more — became a calling-card for many figures we’d come to know as beacons of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks to Dorie Ladner. But people still don’t know her name.
That history is what Chinonye Chukwu wanted to bring to life, which she does, in excruciatingly heartbreaking detail, in Till. Detailing Emmett’s death and Mamie’s subsequent quest to bring his murderers to justice, the film, in select theaters today, expands on what we know about Emmett while also carving out a space in the history books for Mamie. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Danielle Deadwyler (Station Eleven), who seems to find new shades in Mamie’s psyche in every frame, Till is a powerful reminder of a mother’s love.
A Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for her phenomenal 2019 breakout Clemency, about a Black female prison warden and the death-row inmate in her charge, Chukwu had already demonstrated a unique ability to tackle difficult subject matter with striking clarity and palpable sensitivity. But recounting a history as harrowing as Emmett’s is another matter entirely. Yet, despite the distressing subject matter, Chukwu manages to tell the story without reveling in its inherent trauma. Though Emmett was the victim of a gruesome crime, Till is not the story of one child’s death, but instead the story of one mother’s committed fight for recognition and change.
Shortly after Till’s rapturous world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Chinonye Chukwu hopped on the phone with NYLON to discuss her interest in bringing the story of Mamie Till-Mobley to life, the similarities this film shares with Clemency, why she decided to avoid depicting violence on Black bodies, being blown away by Danielle Deadwyler’s audition tape, and how she thinks her film connects to some of the realities we’re currently facing.
So, Till is about to premiere very soon. How are you feeling?
I am feeling great. After we premiered at New York Film Festival, it was such an extraordinary reception. I'm just so eager and excited to start sharing the film with the world.
Can you talk a bit more about what initially drew you to this story?
Well, I was excited about the opportunity to tell a story through Mamie's perspective and through her journey. You know, we wouldn't have known who Emmett Till was if it weren't for Mamie, but I think most of us don't know about who Mamie was as a person or what her journey of justice and advocacy and activism after her son's lynching was. [Most of us also don’t know about] the community of people who are a part of that journey, from Dr. T. R. M. Howard, to Medgar Evers, to Ruby Hurley, to the community of Mound Bayou [in Mississippi], et cetera. So it was just really exciting for me to share that and to be able to portray that story.
There have been a lot of recent conversations about “trauma porn” and the role stories about Black pain and suffering have played and should continue to play in our media. I think a story as graphic and harrowing as Emmett Till’s could definitely invite some conversation on that level, but I think you’ve found this brilliant way to tell this story in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative, even if it is still hard to stomach. And I think part of that is because, as you just mentioned, Till is more Mamie’s story than Emmett’s. When did you decide to tell the story from Mamie’s perspective? Or was that always the plan?
Well, I only looked at this film as the story of Mamie Till-Mobley and her journey. So knowing that that was the story that I wanted to tell, it was not necessary to show the physical violence that was inflicted upon Emmett. It was not necessary to show that physical violence inflicted on any black body. So, yeah, I knew that from before the moment I signed on to the film.
I was also a huge fan of your previous film, Clemency, and I couldn’t help but to notice a parallel. These are both movies about Black women who are forced to reckon with the lethal violence inflicted upon a Black man in their charge. And as is the case in Till, the Black man in Clemency is also being killed for something he didn’t actually do. I think it’s interesting that, in both, the main character isn’t the person who the violence is being inflicted upon, but is still someone who’s carrying the pain in some way. Is that something you find yourselves drawn to as a storyteller or is it pure coincidence that these two stories fell back-to-back?
It just happened to be that way. [laughs] I am a storyteller, I am a filmmaker, I am an artist, and so I'm open to telling all kinds of stories. But I first have to be curious about the person or people who are at the heart of the story. I have to be curious about them as human beings. So I was fascinated by the emotional and psychological complexities of a warden — of a Black female warden — [in Clemency]. And I was fascinated and curious about the emotional and psychological makings and negotiations of Mamie Till-Mobley [in Till]. As a human being, as a person, and as a story, she just has extraordinary layers to her journey. [It was] one that really resonated for me as a person, as a Black woman, and as a filmmaker.
Of course, none of this would work without the performance given by Danielle Deadwyler, who gives so much of herself over to the role and just completely anchors the film. During the casting process, what about Danielle stood out most to you? How did you know that she would be able to handle everything that this film requires of her?
Well, Danielle Deadwyler sent an audition tape and blew me away. And then, I called her back, and she continued to blow me away. We had this incredible director’s session, where we were able to talk extensively about the emotional beats, and the inner-workings of one scene in particular — and that’s the scene where Mamie is seeing Emmett's body for the first time after the lynching. It was an extraordinary experience working with her because she was really interested in digging into what was going on internally, [what was going on] underneath and in between words and silences and pauses. She was someone who could hold a screen — who could command the screen — without saying a word. She could communicate so much with her eyes. So I knew that she was the person to be Mamie.
I cast craft-driven actors who are ready and willing and able to really dig into the inner-workings of their characters, to go far deeper underneath the words — and Danielle fit the bill times one-hundred. We dove in for months before shooting and just really did the work together. By the time we came on set, she had this inherent emotional and psychological understanding of Mamie. She really channeled Mamie in every possible way, as you can tell from her performance.
One of the things that immediately stood out to me was the emphasis on Emmett’s youth. Particularly in those early scenes in the film, we really get to see Emmett just being a kid, and Jalyn Hall’s performance really accentuates the fact that this is, ultimately, just a child. He’s not a man, barely even a teen. Were you always thinking about that?
I mean, it was important to me to really center the humanity of Emmett, to show him as a fully real-life boy, who was funny and playful and naive and curious, who had swag and had this childlike innocence — because he was a child. I think the majority of us only associate him with a black-and-white photo of his corpse, so it was a necessity for me to spend a significant amount of time showing him as a boy, [to show him] living and being and playing so it's palpable for us, so we could really understand what happened: that this boy — this living, breathing human being, who was a child — was taken from us, was lynched, was killed. So, yes, absolutely, that was an intentional choice to really center his humanity and his childlike-being.
There’s also this huge focus on community, especially in the second half of the film. When Mamie goes down to the South to prepare to testify in her son’s trial, she’s met by this huge supportive group of Black people who all seem invested in helping her in any way that they can. Despite the context of why she’s there in the first place, this kind of support does have an oddly comforting, uplifting feel — just to watch this example of communal Black resilience happening in real-time. Were you thinking about trying to maintain a balance between the trauma of the incident and the power of the aftermath?
Yeah, I mean, listen: if you are a part of any marginalized group, amidst the inherent pain, sadness, trauma, and anger that can come with being in your body — with being a Black woman in this world, per se — there's also joy and community and love and life. As a Black woman in this world, I have learned to live a life that is all of it. My joy, my community, my resiliency also exist alongside some of the inherent pain that comes from being a Black woman in the world. And community can exist alongside that as well. So if I was going to show the full breadth of humanity of Mamie, I had to show community and love and joy, too, because all of that is also part of our being, in spite of the inherent pain and sadness that's part of that as well.
At the end of the film, you end with a note reminding (or informing) audiences that lynching wasn’t outlawed until this year. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022 was passed on March 29, just six months ago. I think many people would hear the word “lynching” and automatically relegate it to something of the past, but this challenges that. Did you want to end on that note as a way to bring Emmett’s story into the present?
Yes. I mean, what we see in the film is that there's a movement of people who have been trying to get this anti-lynching bill passed for many decades. You know, we see people in the film — including Rayfield [Mooty], including people from the NAACP, et cetera — who've been trying to get this bill passed. And so it was important for me to communicate that direct linkage to today, to our present reality. [It was important to show] that the work that the people in the film — real people who existed, like Medgar Evers, and Myrlie Evers, and Mamie, and Rayfield, and Dr. Howard, et cetera — have been doing, the work that is represented in the film, has a legacy that resonates to our present realities. Especially to our present realities when it comes to the fight to protect voting rights. This is one of the many reasons why the film is so relevant to today, is that we, in our present realities, can continue the legacy. We can continue the work that people like Mamie, like Dr. Howard, like Medgar, like Myrlie, et cetera, have done.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Till is in select theaters today.