There has not been a feature film made about the brutal murder and legacy of the Black teenage boy Emmett Till until now. It’s been 67 years since Till’s slaying, and the release of the first big-screen adaptation of his story coincides with the passing into law of the Antilynching Act in the US. Director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu, whose award-winning Clemency put her on the map in 2019, focuses the story on Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, played with a striking emotional ferocity by Danielle Deadwyler. The film chronicles how Till-Mobley processed her grief and became a vital voice in the civil-rights movement. Here, Chukwu discusses the cultural responsibility of telling this story, presenting Black women with humanity and refusing to show violence.
Chinonye Chukwu: Clemency led me to a greater confidence in creating a directorial vision and a greater confidence in working with actors. It really helped me solidify more of a competence and intentionality of myself as a director and as a storyteller.
AB: When you were approached to bring Emmett Till’s story to the screen, did you know straight away that you wanted to focus on Mamie?
CC: I never saw this film as a story about Emmett Till. This is always a story about Mamie. For without Mamie Till-Mobley the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was. I always thought the only way to make this film was if we focused on Mamie’s journey in becoming an activist and the decisions she made that led to a modern civil-rights movement that would impact the world. That was always what I believed the story was. And that was what I presented to the producers when they reached out to me, because they also believed that Mamie is the heartbeat. The world doesn’t really know who she was as a person – it was really important to me and the producers to centre her, a Black woman, in her rightful place in history.
AB: What was your entrypoint into Mamie?
CC: I thought that one of the things about her life at this time, which is particularly interesting and I could especially relate to, was this navigation between the public and private self as a Black woman, the presentational self versus the private self. She’s actively having to suppress herself when she is entering white spaces or all-male spaces. How is she navigating that as a Black woman versus when she’s just by herself? Those are very specific navigations that I could definitely relate to as a Black woman in this world.
Black women’s humanities have so often been erased from the screen and not considered in everyday life around the world. So it was particularly necessary in my eyes to make sure that we show the full dimensionality of her being, that it is not just a grieving mother, but it’s also a professional woman, a single mother. It’s someone with friends and family and a partner and a bougie lifestyle. Somebody who drinks and plays cards and laughs and has a tense relationship with her mother. She’s a fully realised person and that was a non-negotiable to me when really considering how to portray her.
AB: What sort of pressure did you feel about telling Mamie and Emmett’s story?
CC: I definitely felt anxiety before starting work on making the film because of the deep cultural and historical responsibility in telling this story, and making sure that it’s told right, but it was really just about making sure that I service the legacy and the history of these very real-life people in the best way that I could. Knowing that I have the representation of these extraordinary beings in my creative care, that does create a lot of anxiety. I felt it and then I had to let it go when I started working on the film because I had a job to do.
AB: Was there anything that helped you let go of that anxiety?
CC: Just being a professional artist. I’m clear about what my professional artistic responsibilities are. I allowed myself to be very human and feel the anxieties and then I told myself, ‘Alright, Chinonye, let’s get to work’.
AB: We see the origin and the aftermath of violence, but there is a deliberate choice to not show us the violence. Can you talk about this decision?
CC: This is a film that is about Mamie and her specific point of view, it didn’t make sense to me to show the physical violence inflicted upon Emmett. Mamie didn’t have any awareness of that, she didn’t see it, and that’s not important to experiencing her journey. It’s important to really understand that the story is about so much more than the physical violence inflicted upon Emmett Till, and that his humanity should not be relegated to just that. There’s a full story and full lives that should be explored beyond that tragedy.
AB: You mentioned at the start that you felt more confident in your work with actors. What was your approach working with Danielle Deadwyler?
CC: Danielle and I spent months before shooting going through every single emotional beat and nuance in the script multiple times, digging into extensive research and talking about it every day, talking about discoveries that were made, insights that were gathered. We talked about Mamie’s interiority and also her public presentational self and the tension between the two. We did a lot of that work for months so by the time she got on set, she had such an emotional and psychological understanding of who Mamie Till-Mobley was. When we were shooting, it was a big part of my job to remind Danielle of the beat work we had done beforehand and remind her where Mamie was at that point emotionally and psychologically, and making adjustments here and there accordingly.
AB: You’ve alluded to the private life and the public presentation of Mamie. As a visual storyteller, what was the difference for you? Did you frame the character differently?
CC: All of the choices that I made were informed by what someone was navigating emotionally or psychologically and that informed the visual language of the film. I wanted to make sure that we visually and sonically communicate what a person was feeling emotionally or psychologically. An example of that is the courtroom scene. Keeping that long take and holding it on Mamie really helps to communicate the emotional tension that rises as Mamie is testifying in this very antagonistic space. We’re not letting that pressure get off of her, visually. Or the scene in the barbershop, the first time we see Mamie and Gene [Mobley, her third and last husband], and the camera pans off her and goes to her reflection in the mirror when she’s not being fully honest with Gene about the anxiety building in her about her son having travelled to Mississippi. That was how my cinematographer and I were thinking about the visual-language choices of the film.
AB: The scene in the courtroom is one of the emotionally high notes of the whole film. How did you prepare Danielle for it?
CC: Well, I don’t tell actors when I’m doing something like that. The way I communicate with actors is through emotional and psychological terms, so they can be present in the scene as opposed to, you know, fancy camera work. I didn’t know we were going to do a long take. We had eight or nine other set-ups planned. When we first did a set-up of Mamie’s close-up and Danielle’s performance was so incredible, we made some adjustments to the camerawork, framing and composition so that we can have that self-contained long take for the whole scene. But I didn’t tell Danielle that’s what I was thinking. It’s the same thing in Clemency, there’s a long take at the end where I hold on Alfre Woodward’s character. I didn’t tell Alfre what I was doing, we just talked about the different beats going on in that scene and that I’ll say cut when I say cut.
AB: Whoopi Goldberg, one of the producers, has been trying to get this film made for years. Why do you think the timing was right now?
CC: It’s a story that’s very much reflective of our present reality. I believe that there’s an urgency in telling it because we see history repeating itself. We see, especially in America and in different parts of the world, that there’s an active movement to erase and rewrite history to not include the very real pervasive reality of white supremacy and patriarchy that pervades every corner of this world. And so, we want to make this film to correct that active erasure that people are attempting to perpetuate. It’s important that people understand the legacies of the people who we all stand on the shoulders of.
WATCH TILL IN CINEMAS