‘Till’ Director Approached the Tragedy of Emmett Till Through the Eyes of His Grieving Mother
"It was from a humanizing perspective and was not one of objectifying or exploitation," said Chinonye Chukwu in an interview.EntertainmentMovies
Mamie Till-Mobley was a visionary. She understood the power of an image, and her use of it—specifically, the image of her lynched son’s mutilated body—changed the course of American history. Her story and legacy are captured in the new film by Clemency writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, Till. The film tells the story of Emmett Till’s 1955 summer vacation to Mississippi, where, after an interaction with a white woman who ran a store, he was hunted down and lynched. The film follows Emmett (Jalyn Hall) and his concerned mother at home in Chicago, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) until the scene of his murder, which happens offscreen. The perspective then shifts to Mamie and her fight for her son’s justice, as well as her decision to publish pictures of his body in Jet, a move that brought lynching into the national spotlight and is credited with galvanizing the Civil Rights movement.
Chukwu’s film delicately examines Mamie’s sharing of her private pain for the greater good. While her action prompted a reckoning, Till further excavates the humanity of a story that has effectively become lore in the United States. It’s a movie about a grieving mother and her emotional experience, and Deadwyler’s performance is gut-wrenching. As in Chukwu’s previous movie, there’s an emotionally climactic close-up on her protagonist’s face for several minutes that transmits a wealth of information. This arresting setup is becoming a signature of Chukwu’s. And as with Clemency, Chukwu said that the scene was not planned to only contain said closeup, but there was no other sensible choice when she saw her actor’s performance.
Chukwu worked on the script with Till producer Keith Beauchamp, the director of the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, who has close ties with the Till family. Whoopi Goldberg produced and plays Alma Carthan, Mamie’s mother. Earlier this week via Zoom, Chukwu told Jezebel about her approach to the material, finding joy on set, and refraining from exploitation. A condensed and edited transcript of that conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: When preparing the movie and your script, did you talk to anybody from the Till estate? Does such an estate exist?
CHINONYE CHUKWU: No, it’s members of the Till family. I was really fortunate to walk into a situation where one of the producers, Keith Beauchamp, was a mentee of Mamie and had spent decades and decades of his life uncovering the facts of the story and reopening the case. He’s had deep relationships with various members of the Till family, who were advisors on this film and supporters, and really made themselves available to me as resources. I visited Mississippi a few times as part of my own research process and met with various members of the family.
Did you always know that the movie was going to follow Mamie as closely as it does?
Oh yeah. When I was first approached to make this, I met with the producers, and I said, “The only way I would be interested in making this film and telling the story is if it is told through Mamie’s point of view, and it is about her journey in fighting for justice for her son, but also her journey evolving and expanding activist consciousness.” Without Mamie Till-Mobley, the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was.
How did you balance film’s inherent goal to entertain with the presentation of such heavy material?
I’m story-first. I knew that my guiding light was Mamie. I approached this as almost a character study of Mamie and her journey, and I kept it so focused on her. Once I decide the narrative arc and the trajectory and the point of view, I’m very disciplined in making sure that I don’t veer off of that. That made it easier for me to stay on track narratively and to keep the cinematic scope. That informed the visual language and my directorial vision. At this point in my craft, I have a very clear understanding of what kinds of choices I need to keep the story cinematic, but also very focused, as well.
Is that a matter of going with your gut and trusting yourself as an artist?
I’m a meticulous planner, and very intentional when constructing my directorial vision. I’m very meticulous about planning shots with my director of photography and constructing visual motifs and getting clarity within myself about what the emotional subtext is. Scene by scene: Whose scene is it, what emotional point of view are we favoring? Visual parallels. Sonic parallels. I develop that and get real clear about that beforehand.
And then when I’m on set, I’m so prepared that I’m comfortable throwing everything out the window when problems arise or days get cut, budgets. Mamie’s testimony, the long take, that was not planned. I had eight or nine other setups that I thought we were going to do. The close-up was the first setup. And after the first take, Danielle got a standing ovation from the crew. I was like, “Damn.” It was incredible. We adjusted some framing composition with the hands of the lawyers, and the ring, and the pictures, so we could be clear about the world beyond the frame. My cinematographer and I timed out when the camera was going to pan around Mamie so it could parallel the emotionality of the scene. It took six takes for the construction of that to be just perfect. And the sixth take is what was in the film.
Was there anything you specifically told Jalyn in terms of what to project?
I shared with him some research and interviews of people from people who knew Emmett. He read Mr. Simeon Wright’s autobiography and listened to interviews that Mamie had done, where she talked about Emmett’s personality. When you’re directing kids, I learned that you keep it simple and you keep it succinct. You don’t want to inundate them with all of this direction. Jalyn naturally has the charisma and the charm and talent and this childhood innocence that Emmett embodied. So it’s also empowering Jalyn to be himself. He and Danielle leaned into the natural chemistry that they had and played it to that which was really beautiful to watch.
The details of Emmett’s interaction with Carolyn Bryant have been debated—the nature of his whistle, for example, and whether it was a wolf whistle or something he was doing for his stutter. How did you decide on what to portray there?
It’s based on the decades of research that Keith had done. He really did a phenomenal job unpacking what happened by the testimonies of the people who were there and speaking with family members and reopening case files as well. But I’ll say this: Whether or not he whistled, it doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on how people should receive or respond to what happened to him.
Whether or not he whistled, it doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on how people should receive or respond to what happened to him.
The movie touches on the controversy that Mamie shared the image of her son’s mutilated body with the world. How did you approach the decision to show a recreated version of his body? Were you thinking at all about exploitation and how to avoid it?
I knew that showing Emmett’s body was an extension of Mamie’s decision to have the world see what happened to her son. And my approach in how I wanted to show the body was to come from a place of humanizing, not objectifying. When we’re looking at the scene where Mamie is seeing Emmett’s body for the first time in the funeral home, we don’t see the body for a while. We just preserve the private, intimate moment that Mamie is having, because this scene is about Mamie’s relationship and reconnection with her son and his body. The camera is not a voyeur. The way that his body is presented, the way I chose to make this film was from a critical care perspective. It was from a humanizing perspective and was not one of objectifying or exploitation.
I assume that not showing Emmett’s lynching is an extension of this ethos.
Absolutely. It’s not narratively necessary. I don’t want to see it or recreate it as a human being, as a Black person. And it’s also a way for me to show care for audiences.
What do you think about this movie coming at a time when critical race theory is under attack from the right, members of whom seem allergic to the elucidation of systemic racism and aspects of American history?
Especially before midterms, right? We’re in a time when states are actively trying to pass legislation to not teach the truth about this world in the country that we live in. And so I hope that this film can help challenge that and correct that and really help push people to want to learn more, and about the history that really is directly tied to our present reality.
In general, how was the mood on the set? Given the heaviness of the material, was there any room for jokes or any other kind of levity?
Yeah, there had to be. I approached making the film by making sure that we see, feel, and understand the love, the joy, the community alongside the inherent pain and trauma. That’s a part of the story, and that’s life, right? On a personal level, I’m very intentional about my joy. And the cast and crew and myself, we honored the story that we’re telling and the seriousness of it. But it was so important, just as human beings, that we do bring levity in as much as we can and lighten the mood a little bit. There were days when it was more solemn and quiet and we had to honor and respect that. We had a therapist on set every day who was a resource for all of us, cast and crew, before, during, and after shooting. I limited the takes of certain scenes to just two takes, because I didn’t want actors to go through that multiple, multiple, multiple times. And the parents of the children were on set everyday. When we were shooting the scene where Emmett is abducted, Jalyn after a take or two asked if he could get a hug from his mom. So we stop everything and he gets a hug from his mom. Whatever anybody needed in order to protect their wellbeing, they got because we’re human beings first and foremost.
Did you find this project daunting at all?
I mean, I definitely had a little bit of anxiety and fear to get it right. But I always want to have a little bit of fear when making a film. I had fear with Clemency because when I decided to make that film, I knew nothing about the prison system or wardens. Nothing. With Till, I felt like I had, as a human being, as a Black woman that grew up in America, an acute awareness of the cultural and historical significance of the story and the weight that is on me to make sure I get this right. But any anxiety or fear I had, that just held me accountable to do the best job that I can with the purest intentions.
At what point was that anxiety or fear assuaged?
When I decided to do the film. The weight of it was always there. And it’s still there to this day. But it’s not about whether or not you’re afraid or anxious, it’s about how you move forward in spite of it.
You’re proud of the movie. I assume you like it.
I like my film.
When did you know that it was good?
I knew we were making something special from the set. I knew we were making something special from when we cast Danielle. Everybody—cast, crew, everybody—gave such excellent work. We were so locked in and clear about what we were doing and rose to the occasion tremendously. I knew that we were making something special when we were shooting it. And, you know, I am the absolute hardest person on myself. I mean, there is nobody harder on me than myself. I am an absolute perfectionist when it comes to my work. So for me to feel this way, I’m like, “Okay, we got it.”