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How 'Till' director tackled Emmett Till's gruesome death, and his mother's legacy, in new film

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Director Chinonye Chukwu (left) and actor Danielle Deadwyler on the set of the new movie “Till.” Photo: Andre D. Wager/Orion Pictures

In the days leading up to 14-year-old Emmett Till’s trip from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, his mother, Mamie, implored her only child to “be small down there” in the Jim Crow South.

As depicted in the emotionally gripping new movie “Till,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”), Mamie Till-Mobley (played with fierce resolve by Danielle Deadwyler) seemed to have a premonition that her ebullient Black teenager, with his garrulous personality and bounce in his step, was bound for trouble setting foot in a part of the country that would rather he stay silent and subservient.

What would befall Emmett just three days after arriving was so much worse than Mamie could have feared. He was brutally kidnapped and lynched, his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His two white killers admitted to the crime, yet were never convicted.

Emmett Till’s story has been well known ever since, due to his mother’s audacious, grief-stricken decision to let a Jet magazine photographer take photos of her son’s maimed body to show the world what was done to him.

In that decision, Emmett became a symbol of Southern brutality and Mamie started down a path of extraordinary personal transformation into a courageous activist for civil rights. She tested at the murder trial in front of her son’s killers, and worked closely with the NAACP for the next half-century seeking justice, not just for her son, but on behalf of all those oppressed by racialized violence.

Director Chinonye Chukwu (left), Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall appear at the premiere of “Till” during the 2022 London Film Festival in London. Photo: Scott Garfitt/Invision

Chukwu spoke with The Chronicle during the Mill Valley Film Festival, where she screened “Till,” about her decision to center her film on Mamie Till-Mobley’s journey toward activism, and about making a movie that highlights the connection between a murder 67 years ago and today’s “many Emmett Tills.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Review: ‘Till’ is a brilliant drama about a lynched teenager and his valiant mother

Q: Heartbreak like Mamie Till-Mobley experienced could lead someone to collapse in on themselves, but her grievance actually awakened her activism. Why was that important to you to show?

HAS: Without Mamie Till-Mobley, the world wouldn’t have known who Emmett Till was. So I always knew she was the heartbeat of this story. I couldn’t imagine telling this story other than through her point of view. Her incredible journey fighting for justice for her son is intertwined with her growing activist consciousness. It’s reflected in her speech in Harlem, when she said she was living in her middle-class bubble with her child, her social club and her job, before she was thrust into these extraordinary circumstances. The nuances of that story make it a fascinating journey, and one most people don’t know about.

When I first met with the producers, I told them if I were to do this, I’d like to do a page one rewrite that makes this story about Mamie and her journey. Not an accumulation of facts, but a character study where we get to live inside her evolving activist consciousness.

Jalyn Hall (left) as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley in “Till.” Photo: MGM

Q: You emphasize in early scenes just how close Emmett and Mamie were, and what a lighthearted, joyful boy he was.

HAS: In Mamie’s memoir, she writes so vividly about who Emmett was before he was killed. And I was able to read other accounts of people who knew him. He was a charismatic jokester, and he had a naive, childlike innocence to him at 14. I wanted to make sure we spend a significant amount of time with him alive, with his light and his full humanity, so he can transcend the black- and-white photo of his body that we all know about.

Q: Since you were depicting Mamie’s decision to let the world see those brutal photos, how did you decide as a filmmaker what to show, and what not to, in terms of the violence, which we don’t see, and its aftermath, which we do?

HAS: A lot of thought, intentionality and care went into what and who you see, and don’t see. I knew that honoring Grandma’s decision to have the world see what happened to her son was critical. But my approach in doing so was coming from a place of humanizing, not objectifying. Showing the body needed to be sparing and always be in relation to Mamie’s emotional journey. It’s seen slowly, through her love and connection with her son, as opposed to the camera being voyeuristic.

There’s great power in what you don’t see, and where you choose to put the camera can be its own act of resistance, its own political choice. That’s a technique I built upon from my last film, “Clemency” (about the death penalty).

I knew that I did not want to show any physical violence inflicted on Black bodies, for myriad reasons. One is that this is a story about Mamie’s journey, but also I did not want to re-create that or see it for myself as a human being, as a Black person.

Danielle Deadwyler appears as Mamie Till-Mobley in “Till.” Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures

Q: Danielle Deadwyler gives a knockout performance as Grandma. What was it like to witness her transformation and help draw it out?

HAS: It’s a transcend performance. She really channeled Mamie’s mind, body and soul. Danielle submitted an audition tape and when I called her back, we had a director session that was extraordinary. I tend to cast people who can communicate a story with just their eyes, who can command a screen, and get underneath and in between the words without saying a word. Danielle checked all those boxes times 10.

Q: Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Mamie’s mom, has said that she sees this story as similar to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I think she meant that it draws a line between past horrific acts and what is still happening today, in terms of systemic racism.

HAS: Absolutely. This is a country that was partly built on racialized violence, and the effects of systemic racism pervade our society today. There are many Emmett Tills in just the last few years. And with the fight to protect voting rights still ongoing, people actively being disenfranchised and the midterms coming up, you can absolutely draw a clear line through the legacy of the work that people like Mamie Till, Dr. TRM Howard and Myrlie Evers were doing. It’s a line straight to today.

“Till” (R) opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, Oct. 21.