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Director Chinonye Chukwu on 'Till' and the story of Emmett Till's mother

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

You may be familiar with the story of Emmett Till. He's the 14-year-old African American Chicago teen who, in 1955, was abducted and brutally murdered while visiting family in a small town in Mississippi - Money, Miss. - all for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The story has so often been relegated to that basic fact. But in her new film "Till," director Chinonye Chukwu tells the story from a different perspective - that of Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TILL")

DANIELLE DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) The first thing I noticed when I became a mother was that my hands were busy all the time - rocking, carrying, swaying, always full - one hand for him and one hand for what he needed. When it came time to place him down so he could make his own way around, I touched every inch of him, every bend. My hand knew him with my eyes closed, just like I'd know his laughter in a crowded room. It's the same thing when you know all of someone.

THOMPSON: I spoke with Chinonye Chukwu about the film, and she began by telling me how she landed on that approach to tell this story.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: And I thought about, OK, how would I want to tell this story if I were to do this? And I quickly came to the decision that I shared with the producers when I did eventually meet with them three years ago. And that was if I were to do this, this film had to be about Mamie Till-Mobley and her journey - her fight for justice for her son, her journey in her becoming an activist and a catalyst for the modern American civil rights movement. It needed to be told through her emotional point of view and center the humanity and love that existed between herself and Emmett. And thankfully, the producers were totally on board from Day 1.

THOMPSON: Well, you were born in Nigeria, but you were raised in Alaska. And that's a whole nother conversation.

CHUKWU: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: But you were raised in Alaska. And the story of Emmett Till - his death, his lynching - happened long before you were born. So how familiar were you with him and his story?

CHUKWU: I mean, when you're a Black person who grew up in America, I think that a lot of us are acutely aware of at least the name Emmett Till, you know? And we kind of know, in broad strokes, what happened. I don't know exactly when, but it's something that I've always known about. But it was a footnote in history classes, you know? And I definitely didn't know much about who Mamie Till-Mobley was as a person and her journey after Emmett's lynching. And so I was really excited to learn more about her and all of the people who were a part of her story and showing that in a multidimensional, complex way on screen.

THOMPSON: There are some great lines in this film. One of my favorites was - and I don't want to spoil it for people - was when Emmett was getting ready to go to Mississippi from Chicago. And his mother knew his personality because he clearly had a big personality. And she said, be small down there. And he wasn't.

CHUKWU: Mamie has this really difficult, heartbreaking task or reality that she has to engage in, and that is she has to figure out how to raise her child to be in his power and to be a child and be free while also having to figure out how to make him prepared for the realities of this racist world that we live in, that where him being in his power and living in his light can result in his death. And that's an impossible situation that many of us, as people of color, have to navigate.

THOMPSON: There were some pretty fantastic performances in this movie - in particular, you know where I'm going with this, Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley. Was she your first choice?

CHUKWU: When I cast an actor, particularly an actor in a leading role, I look for a craft-driven actor who can communicate a story with just their eyes, who can hold and command a frame without saying a word, who can get underneath and in between the words on a page and underneath the silences and pauses that exist on the page. And Danielle checked all those boxes. So once she was cast, we just spent several months, you know, before shooting going through every single emotional beat and psychological nuance in the script multiple times. And she dove into the research, and we talked every day about the research and discoveries that were made. And so by the time she got on set, she had such an inherent emotional and psychological understanding of who Mamie Till-Mobley was.

THOMPSON: A central part of this story is the visibility of Emmett's body, right? There's that infamous photograph in Jet magazine - which my parents have, by the way - that is recreated in the film and, of course, Mamie's decision to hold an open casket funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TILL")

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Emmett loved this suit. It's how he'd like to be seen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Seen? Mamie, the boy is in no kind of shape to be seen by anyone.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) He's in just the right shape. The whole world has to see what happened to my son.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mrs. Myrlie, can I at least fix him up a bit just to make him more...

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) No one's going to believe what I just saw. No. They have to see it for themselves.

THOMPSON: So there's a moment in the film where the camera angle leads the audience to believe that we won't see the body, but ultimately we do. So what was that conversation around how to execute this? What was that conversation like, and why was it important to show the body in the film?

CHUKWU: Well, showing his body was an extension of Mamie's decision to have the world see what happened to her son. And so the question, for myself, was not whether or not I was going to show his body, but it was how. And I knew that the key was to show him in a humanizing way through Mamie's emotional point of view, as opposed to the camera taking on a voyeuristic lens and objectifying him. And so that's why when we had the scene where Mamie is looking at Emmett's body in the funeral home, his body is obstructed and we're just preserving the private, intimate moment that Mamie is having in silence with her child.

And then when we do start to see parts of his body, it's seeing Mamie's lovingly - loving embrace of him. And we see that emotional connection she has with her child. And so we're humanizing Emmett as opposed to making his body objectifying and taking on that voyeuristic lens that I mentioned. And so those were some of the decisions that informed how I wanted to capture his body on screen.

THOMPSON: So how did you go about making this story your own artistically?

CHUKWU: Well, the first is by making the story about Mamie and her journey and crafting the narrative through her emotional point of view. From there, directorially, and also in the writing, figuring out ways to communicate the public versus private self of Mamie. How do we take her and all of the other people who are part of her story - like Medgar Evers, like Myrlie Evers, like Dr. T.R.M. Howard, et cetera, et cetera - how do we take them off of their historical pedestals and see them as fully realized human beings?

And so I made sure that I incorporated those moments of quiet, those moments that show Mamie as more than just grieving mother. But we see her hanging out with her sister friends. We see her at work. We explore the relationship dynamics she has with her partner, Gene, or with her father, with her mother. And so it was important that I capture those layers to her humanity and then also be intentional about framing and composition choices and who the camera sees, because those are all potential acts of resistance as well.

THOMPSON: What are you hoping viewers take away from your film?

CHUKWU: Well, I hope viewers are activated - you know, activated to be change agents in the world, whatever that looks like - big, small, everything in between; activated to learn more about Mamie Till-Mobley and her legacy and the lives and the legacy of all the other people who are part of her story; activated to try to protect voting rights, for we have a midterm next month - if you have access to vote, to vote - and activated to remember that the fight continues. But hope and joy can also exist alongside that as well.

THOMPSON: That was Director Chinonye Chukwu. You can see "Till" now in select theaters and everywhere October 28. Chinonye Chukwu, thanks so much for talking with me.

CHUKWU: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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