“I Needed to Honor Mamie’s Decision To Have the World See What Happened to Her Son”: Chinonye Chukwu on Till
The lynching of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was murdered in 1955 after having an “inappropriate” encounter with a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi—has long served as a testament to the odious racism endemic in American culture. As such, Emmett Till has been posthumously considered an icon of the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, but director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic Till is particularly invested in documenting the aftermath of Till’s murder as experienced by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (played by Danielle Deadwlyer). In Chukwu’s sophomore film, the audience follows her journey after this life-altering tragedy as she doggedly seeks justice for her son, pursues activist NAACP connections and fosters educational programs in order to prevent another Black child’s untimely death at the hands of a cruel system.
Famously, Till-Mobley insisted that the mutilated body of her son be put on full display during an open casket funeral, having his body transported from Mississippi to Illinois for the occasion. This historic demand is well-documented in devastating black and white photographs, yet Chukwu is careful to imbue Till with a loving warmth that conveys a mother’s eternal love (and heartbreak) for a child gravely wronged by a pervasive societal ill. Jayln Hall perfectly embodies the young Till, displaying a childlike rambunctiousness that is both goofy and gut-wrenching in its authenticity.
Following her debut Clemency (which earned her the title of the first Black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), Till is both an appropriate follow-up and exciting transition for the Nigerian-American filmmaker. The film similarly handles themes of wrongful death, racism and the folly of the American judicial system; at the same time, it also has an essence of grandeur, reflected in painstakingly curated period set dressing and costuming that works to evoke the particulars of the 1950s while emphasizing the frustrating similarities between America’s Jim Crow past and present of emboldened racism.
I spoke to Chukwu shortly after the film’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival, a few weeks prior to its theatrical release via Orion Pictures. Till will have a limited release in the U.S. this Friday, October 14 before expanding wide on the 28th.
Filmmaker: You mentioned during the NYFF post-screening press conference that it took a bit of convincing to get you fully on board to direct this project, but it’s clear that you had a strong vision and executed it very fluidly. Did you take any lessons or practices from Clemency to help guide you through crafting this detailed biopic?
Chukwu: My approach to the craft was pretty much the same. I’m very meticulous in my planning and very intentional in my directorial vision. But one of the things that I really learned from Clemency is the power of intentional pacing, and of what you show versus what you don’t. I was very intentional about who and what’s in the frame of Till versus who and what is beyond that frame. That really helped me gain clarity about POV and who I’m centering. I honed that skill set with Clemency and executed that times ten in Till, for sure. I always want to push, challenge and expand myself as a filmmaker—in terms of color palette, camera work, mise-en-scène, framing compositional choices and overall cinematic language and techniques.
Filmmaker: Clemency mines from a real-life case, but doesn’t necessarily act as a historical record of it. Meanwhile, Till is very much rooted in existing texts, documentaries and extensive research on the subject. I’m curious if you personally learned anything new or groundbreaking about Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley or this specific era of American history during the research you undertook for the film?
Chukwu: I learned so much. There was so much I didn’t know about Mamie, about Emmett and who he was before he was taken from us. I’d never heard of Dr. T.R.M. Howard before I was approached to make this film, or the community of Mound Bayou. I knew very little about Medgar Evers or Ruby Hurley. It was such a joy and an expansive experience to learn about and really understand this legacy, this rich history that’s so still deeply connected to our present reality. I knew before I signed on to this, that if I were to make this film, it would solely follow Mamie’s journey, emotional perspective and point of view. It helped me figure out which pieces of the story I was going to include or not. If it’s not within Mamie’s point of view or her journey—if we don’t discover it with Mamie as a viewer—then I knew that it wouldn’t be part of the story, or we would have to figure out how to introduce or incorporate that information through the lens of Mamie so we can keep the story focused and character-driven. That was really my guide in figuring out what to include or not.
Filmmaker: The production design, set dressing and costuming is gorgeously detailed, evoking the distinct time period the film takes place in. Yet I was also struck at how timeless everything also feels. The ’50s flair is definitely there, but I never felt that I was explicitly watching a period film. Everything is still so frustratingly relevant and real. How did you and the team go about executing the aesthetic landscape of the film while still emphasizing current social anxieties?
Chukwu: Something I knew early on when I started to construct my directorial vision for this film is that I wanted a bright, bold color palette to reflect the vibrancy and the richness of Black communities and Black spaces. That kind of color palette adds more life and humanity to people who are often [only] seen in black and white photographs. I think that aesthetic choice really helped it not feel like a “period” movie. That was definitely my intention. I communicated that to my department heads—my incredible cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, production designer Curt Beach and my costume designer Marci Rodgers. I also communicated this to my composer, Abel Korzeniowski. We all put our heads together and figured out lighting choices, wardrobe choices and production design choices that have such a vibrancy and richness. The music was the icing on top to make it feel more modern, fresh and suspenseful.
Filmmaker: You’ve explicitly stated that the film would not depict violence against Black bodies, but at the same time, starkly showing Emmett’s mutilated remains is exactly what Mamie wanted the public to be confronted with. Can you speak to the process of recreating his body as realistically and respectfully as you did?
Chukwu: I knew I needed to honor Mamie’s decision to have the world see what happened to her son. This film had to be an extension of that decision. I also it would have to be sparing yet effective as to not objectify Emmett’s body. When Mamie first sees Emmett and is inspecting him, for 30 seconds or so Emmett’s body is obstructed by a table and we’re just with Mamie in silence. It’s visually and sonically giving space to, and honoring, this very private moment that Mamie is having. By showing his body through Mamie’s gaze, it serves to humanize Emmett in this moment as opposed to objectifying him. It’s about Mamie—not about us, the audience, as voyeurs.
Filmmaker: I believe that the film has a powerful reach and can speak to every discernible demographic, but I do think Till will keep Mamie’s legacy alive for a new generation that might not know about the case or are being intentionally sheltered from past and ongoing American atrocities. What do you hope younger audiences take from the film, and what felt most important to communicate to children who may deeply identify with Emmett and his cousins?
Chukwu: Like you said, we’re living in a time where certain states are actively trying to pass legislation that erases any mention of the white supremacist history that [America] was founded on, and that still pervades this country and the world. I hope that this film can really lead people in general, but especially younger generations, to learn about this history and these people, to see how the work that they’ve done is directly tied to our present realities. Especially with the anti-lynching bill that was just passed this year, which is something that people have been trying to get passed for many decades. Protecting voting rights is a fight that’s very much in our present reality, which is tied to a history that’s explored in the film as well.
I hope that younger audiences, and audiences in general, can be inspired to look up more information about this history. You know, Myrlie [Evers-Williams] was only 22 when this story takes place. Mamie was only 33. Medgar Evers was young, too. So many of the freedom fighters during this time were so young, and I think that could be inspiring for younger generations. They could be a part of a larger change in advocacy in whatever ways that makes sense to them, you know? I hope that this film can also serve as a visual representation of the power that exists in people, particularly people who come from marginalized communities. It can help to push people to think, “How could I affect change in my own way while still maintaining my own joy, peace, community and love?” Because all of that can exist at the same time.
Filmmaker: Absolutely. It’s also quite jarring when the film reveals that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act only passed this year. Was that something that you were closely following while making the film?
Chukwu: We were definitely closely following it. It [passed] during post-production and one of the producers was actually there during the signing of the bill. We were obviously very happy that it passed. Especially when watching the scene between Mamie and Rayfield [Mooty, played by Kevin Carroll], when he is starting to talk to her about the work that they’re trying to do and getting the anti-lynching bill passed, I thought, “Oh, this film really is relevant to today.”