When Nigerian-born American filmmaker, educator, and social justice advocate Chinonye Chukwu was approached to write and direct Till, the heartbreaking true story of the historic lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, she was compelled to approach the narrative through another lens – from the maternal point of view of Mamie Till-Mobley, who was the catalyst for a modern day civil rights movement that has laid a formidable framework for future activists and Freedom Fighters.
“I found myself drawn to a singular figure at the center of his orbit. I saw an opportunity to subvert expectations and approach the narrative through another lens,” says Chukwu, who crafted the screenplay with Michael Reilly & Keith Beauchamp,
“Had it not been for Mamie Till-Mobley, her son’s memory would have evaporated into thin air. I felt compelled to champion Mamie’s legacy and center her in the spotlight where she rightfully belongs.
Mamie’s untold story is one of resilience and courage in the face of adversity and unspeakable devastation. For me, the opportunity to focus the film on Mamie, a multi-faceted Black woman, and peel back the layers on this particular chapter in her life, was a tall order I accepted with deep respect and responsibility. On the daily, Mamie combatted racism, sexism, and misogyny, which was exponentially heightened in the wake of Emmett’s murder. Mamie did not cower. Instead, she evolved into a warrior for justice who helped me to understand and shape my own similar journey in activism. And as a filmmaker, showing Mamie in all her complex humanity was of utmost importance.
What makes the film so compelling, is that it is told from the perspective and experience of a Black woman and is co-written and directed by a Black woman.
For Chukwu, the crux of this story is not about the traumatic, physical violence inflicted upon Emmett.
“I refused to depict such brutality in the film – but it is about Mamie’s remarkable journey in
the aftermath. She is grounded by the love for her child, for at its core, TILL is a love story. Amidst
the inherent pain and heartbreak, it was critical for me to ground their affection throughout the
film. The cinematic language and tone of TILL was deeply rooted in the balance between loss in
the absence of love; the inconsolable grief in the absence of joy; and the embrace of Black life
alongside the heart wrenching loss of a child.”
I hope viewers will empathize with the humanities on screen and see our present cultural and
political realities within this film. And I hope that Mamie’s story helps us all to realize the power
within ourselves to continue to fight for the change we want to see in the world, just as she did.
Till tells the heartbreaking true story of the historic lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till
— for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in 1955 — through the eyes of his mother
Mamie Till-Mobley, a widowed single mother who is the head of her household, the only Black woman working for the Air Force in Chicago. Till-Mobley becomes a revolutionary by insisting that the world witness the horror of her brutally maimed son’s body in an open casket viewing as an act of defiance against oppression and hate. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy,” she said at the time. Till-Mobley also gave the exclusive rights to Jet Magazine to publish the images of her son’s maimed body which caused the lynching to gain worldwide notoriety. A mother’s audacity became a lightning rod in the Civil Rights Movement and propelled her to reluctantly become an outspoken activist for the NAACP advocating for social justice and education.
“I learned about Emmett Till and a little bit about Mamie from middle school, high school. It was like a page in the history books and I had to do my own kind of research and digging,” says Chukwu. “There was so much I didn’t know about Mamie, there’s so much that the world doesn’t know about Mamie. Most of us would not know who Emmett Till was if it weren’t for Mamie. There was so much about her life, there was so much about the nuances of the time period in terms of the citizens council, in terms of Brown vs. Board of Education which helped to add rich context to the story and time period that I had no idea about until I was really doing research for this. But a lot of that I didn’t learn in school, a lot of people don’t learn about it in school. We just get like a footnoted version, if that.”
“Keeping the film’s center as Mamie’s point of view allowed us to focus the information that I do
have into something very specific. The information that we have in the story through Mamie’s
point of view is based on research, it’s based on firsthand accounts, it’s based on FBI reports,
court testimonies, it’s based on autopsy reports, it’s based on years and years and years and
years of research that’s been done. But I knew that the film that I was making, and that I did make,
is not one that is trying to account for all of those different perspectives and all of that historical
information that is out there. But the film I am making is one that is very focused on this human
emotional point of view.”
Mamie Till-Mobley: An indelible bond between a mother and her martyred son shook the world and rattled the cage of justice
Mamie Till-Mobley embodies the film Till’s mise-en-scene, a tale of dignity, joy and humanity that
prevails over evil.
Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley (born Mamie Elizabeth Carthan; November 23, 1921 – January 6,
2003) was an American educator and activist. Born in Mississippi she moved with her parents to
the Chicago area during the “Great Migration.” She was the mother of Emmett Louis Till, who was
murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955, aged 14, after allegedly interacting “inappropriately”
with Carolyn Bryant, a white cashier at a local grocery store. After her son’s murder she became
an educator and activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
“God told me,” she said at the outset of her crusade for social justice, “I have taken one from you
but I will give you thousands. I have left something of myself in all the children I have touched.”
This creed is at the center of Till, a period piece, yet contemporary reflection on the state of our
tangled society as seen through the eyes of a mother who will just not quit in the face of racism
and cultural terror tactics, who led a pursuit for justice for her son. Mamie chose to let Jet
Magazine and others publish the horrific photos from the open casket funeral, which became a
galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement.
And so, the filmmakers set out to tell the tale of a bond between a mother and son and the
extraordinary journey a mother takes to not only seek justice for her son’s lynching by white
supremacists in 1950’s Mississippi but to make sure he wasn’t forgotten. Horrified by the
mutilation of her son’s body, Mamie made the stunning decision to have over 50,000 people view
Emmett’s corpse in Chicago which caused many people to faint at the sight and smell of the body
or leave in tears.
Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way in a stirring speech in Montgomery, Alabama a few months
after Emmett’s funeral. He called what happened “one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of
the twentieth century.”
Soon after King’s speech, the Montgomery Improvement Association, which King was president
of, staged the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott was catalyzed by Rosa Parks’
arrest for refusing to give her bus seat to a white woman. But Till-Mobley’s decision that her son’s
desecrated body be publicly seen was indelibly woven in the minds and hearts of Black people
across the country, galvanizing many to say enough is enough. “When people saw what
happened to my son,” she said, “men stood up who had never stood up before. People became
vocal who had never vocalized before.”
Mamie Till-Mobley was more than Emmett Till’s mother. She was a catalyst for arguably the most
culturally transformative movement in modern American history, a public-school teacher who
advocated for equal educational opportunities for Black children and a woman whose story didn’t
begin or end with the death of her son.
And it’s a story everyone should know, and with the feature film Till, they will.
Bringing Mamie’s Fight for Justice to the Big Screen
For Alana Mayo, head of MGM’s Orion Pictures (rebooted as a studio label to develop and produce films centering on and by underrepresented voices) – Chinonye Chukwu’s vision for the telling of this story was key. Says Mayo, “Chinonye’s singular, cinematic telling of Mamie Till Mobley’s remarkable story centered the beautiful humanity of Black joy and tragedy; in this film, we see the power of this mother who fought heroically and tirelessly for justice for her son.” said Mayo.
Till represents a cultural, racial, and identity shift in Hollywood where there are creative homes, like Orion for what Mayo calls “a broader spectrum of creative stories and storytellers.”
The film’s onscreen Mamie, Danielle Deadwyler, a mother herself, understood the immense
responsibility on her shoulders. Deadwyler says, “I was really charged with humility and great will
to embody Mamie’s life at such an integral moment of personal tragedy and political rebellion, a
boon to the civil rights movement, and to represent the joy in the love and life shared between
Mamie and her beloved Emmett”
Mamie aligned with the NAACP and used the murder of her son as a lighting-rod to shine a
spotlight on racism in America, social injustice, and the racial terror of lynching. She insisted that
the funeral would have an open casket and that the world would see “what happened to her boy.”
Mamie also allowed Jet Magazine to feature a photo of Emmett’s mutilated body on the cover
which amplified the lynching and gained global attention in the media.
Centering the story of racial terror, through Mamie’s lens, required a thoughtfulness, innovation,
and point of view that would invite viewers into the story from a fresh perspective. The film also
addresses the issue of generational trauma and how that psychologically impacts Black people,
the Black family, and the Black community.
According to writer-producer Keith Beauchamp, “While this is a bitter part of American history, it’s
also an empowering story of overcoming great trauma and finding one’s voice to create change,
to effect laws, and to champion human rights. Mamie’s story is the tale of an unsung American
Pages of History To the Pages of Script
The story of Emmett Till is sadly unknown by many Americans and people across the globe.
Mamie Till-Mobley’s heroic fight in seeking justice for her son’s lynching, even more so.
Producer (along with Barbara Broccoli, Fred Zollo, Tom Levine and Michael Reilly) and actor
Whoopi Goldberg shares “It’s of those stories that if you’re black, you’ve heard about it. If you
have brothers, you’ve heard about it, you know. And it starts one conversation, you know, and
then it goes into two or three.” That is the goal of everyone who made Till: learn from the past,
take action in the present to make a better future.
Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu agreed to a meeting with Orion Pictures and the film’s producers
as she was moved and inspired by the persistence of one producer, Barbara Broccoli. “One thing
you will quickly learn about Barbara is once she’s made up her mind, she really stops at nothing.
I was really moved and to feel so wanted and appreciated as an artist took me aback.” Chukwu
muses. “One of the first things I said in the meeting was the protagonist of this film is Mamie, it’s
all about Mamie and her emotional journey.’”
Without question, the producers agreed.
“I said, ‘There will be no physical violence against Black people on screen in my version of this
film, because I’m not interested in relishing in that kind of physical trauma. We’re gonna begin
and end in a place of joy. We need to see joy.”
The producers agreed again.
“After spending five years of my life working in prisons through making Clemency, speaking to
incarcerated people on death row, speaking to dozens upon dozens of people who are working
in the prison industrial complex, that is so incredibly dark. I dedicated my life to my last film with
no break. And so I was not sure that I was ready to make Till”
“The biggest thing that I hope audiences carry with them, to seep into their being, is change. That
change is a communal effort,” Deadwyler says.. “It’s an emotional undertaking to witness and to
feel any semblance of what these real life people endure on screen. And even as a woman moving
through the grief and mourning that she was moving through, she had the wherewithal and the
open heart, mind, and spirit to be aware of who she was and who she needed to be and who she
wanted to become after this. And that was a person of community.”
“It wasn’t moving through individualistic efforts, which is deeply American, this idea of American
individualism. It’s what I’ve got to get for me and mine,” Deadwyler says. “That’s not working for
any of us. And so to move away from this with arms and minds that stretch out, that does it in the
most micro or macro way is what I hope people learn. We’ve been witnessing the need for that
presently in our world moving through the Covid pandemic, moving through the climate crisis,
moving through divisive socio-cultural issues — race, gender, sexuality — all of those things are
deeply problematic and to only want for the self is the denial of what it means to even be on this
planet. And so I hope people move with that in their veins after witnessing it.”