Till: Events in the Movie Are “the Culmination of What Systematic Racism Looks Like”

Director Chinonye Chukwu and the cast of the film about the brutal murder of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s quest for justice.

They spoke at the New York Film Festival world premiere about how they worked to capture the true story of the 1955 tragedy and why it’s important viewing for audiences today.

Till hits select theaters on October 14, expanding on October 28.

The New York Film Festival on Saturday night hosted the world premiere of Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, a powerful film about the lynching of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s quest for justice.

Whoopi Goldberg, who both produced and stars in the film said that it has taken more than a decade to come to fruition.

The Oscar winner and famous talk show spoke about the larger social issues that the film reflects and urged audiences to connect what they see in a movie set in the past to what’s happening right now in the U.S., a country still plagued by racism.

“Now you know what institutionalized racism looks like and you can connect it to your own life,” Goldberg told the crowd. “Maybe you’re a gay person. Maybe you’re a woman. Maybe you’re an Asian person. You all understand this hatred because it’s coming closer and closer. What we see on that screen is the culmination of what systematic racism looks like. It goes out in ripples and it touches everybody.

She elaborated: “the whole point of all of this is we’ve seen it, we know. We saw George Floyd; we saw Trayvon Martin: children and young men, middle-aged men. This is your way of saying, ‘I don’t like what I see up there and doing something about it.’”

Earlier on the red carpet, Goldberg spoke about how the recent movement for racial justice in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others helped the long-gestating project finally get the push it needed to get made.

“People thought we should do some stories about Black people, after all that went on over the last couple of years,” Goldberg said. “I always say, we got popular. We got back in vogue and people started saying maybe we should be doing more, we should be telling these stories and we got in through that and MGM’s Orion division said, ‘We should do this.’”

Thank you. Because we’ve been trying forever, just forever, to get it done. And people say, ‘No, it’s an important story and we really feel for it.’ And it’s like, ‘So if this is urgent, you’re not going to give us any money for this project?’”

The feature received a strong reception from the New York Film Festival audience — including a standing ovation and enthusiastic applause and cheers for star Danielle Deadwyler, who’s already getting awards buzz for her portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley.

Surprisingly, Till is only getting its world premiere this late in the fall festival season because of ongoing resistance to the film.

“We were supposed to go to Venice Festival and they then decided that it wasn’t the kind of film for their viewers,” Goldberg said. “And then it was Toronto Festival, and we were going to go there and that didn’t quite work for them either.”

Writer-producer Keith Beauchamp, who thoroughly investigated the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who was 14 at the time, made connections between the tragic incident to more recent atrocities.

“There’s no other story that speaks to this generation of time than the story of Emmett Till,” Beauchamp said. “The political backdrop, the racial climate that we’re in. All of those things we saw back in 1955. We also had the tragic death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and many others and that has awakened us again to understand the past in terms of where we have been and where we have yet to go.”

Chukwu, who directs and co-wrote the screenplay for Till after her acclaimed death-row drama Clemency, brought a specific approach and vision to her take on the film, which she detailed in the post-screening Q&A with Goldberg, Deadwyler and NYFF executive director Eugene Hernandez.

“The first non-negotiable I had in my approach to making this film, and this is what I shared with producers when they first approached me … is that the story had to be told from the perspective of Mamie and we had to follow so closely her emotional journey, for without, we, the world, wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was,” Chukwu said.

“She’s the heart, the foundation of the story. So that was the first thing. I also knew that I did not want to show any physical violence inflicted upon Black bodies. … [For a few reasons,] one being, narratively speaking, because we’re following Mamie’s journey, it’s not necessary to see that physical violence. We have to stay with Mamie. Also, as a Black person, I didn’t want to re-create it, I didn’t want to shoot it, I didn’t want to watch it. And I wanted to take care of audiences that were watching it, particularly Black audiences. Also I really wanted to begin and end the film with joy and love because in addition to this film being about Mamie’s story and her journey, this is also a love story between Mamie and her child.”

Chukwu went on to highlight how what she chose not to show is also significant.

“It’s important what’s not in the frame and what’s in the frame and part of cinema is suggesting the world beyond the frame,” she said. “Where the camera focuses is its own act of resistance, particularly in this film, so I was very intentional about who we see and when.”

She added of her approach, “I was able to use all of the tools of cinema to center the Black gaze, the Black POV, particularly that of a Black woman to visually, to use the tools of cinema to communicate the richness, the vibrancy of Black people, Black communities, Black spaces and put them in a position of power visually using cinematic language.”

Despite Chukwu’s insistence on not showing violence against Black bodies, a number of people on Twitter have already said they don’t want to see a movie about such a traumatic event. But those involved with the film say Emmett Till’s story deserves to be understood.

“This is not the trauma porn film that some have said this would be,” Beauchamp noted. “We were very careful in crafting the story [of Mamie Till-Mobley] to make sure that this story is told with dignity and respect. And so for those who are hesitant to see it, I understand in some cases why but it’s very important to understand that if we forget our past, history will repeat itself. And when Emmett Till’s mother made the decision to have an open casket funeral, so that the world could see her son, it was a pivotal moment that galvanized the American civil rights movement. When we talk about Till we have to remember that Emmett was the catalyst that sparked the American civil rights movement.”

Sean Patrick Thomas, who plays Mamie’s future husband Gene Mobley, said the film serves as important viewing.

“If we keep trying to turn our backs to the ugliness that there is in the world, we’re not going to fix it,” he said. “We have to confront what’s going on so that we can do something about it. I only ask that people find the strength, find the patience to really take the story in, so that we can do something about it.”

Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall, who plays Emmett Till, all said that they did extensive research into their real-life counterparts, working with Beauchamp and the material he collected as well as drawing on first-hand sources.

Deadwyler said that she “did everything” to prepare for the part. “I did a lot of academic research, aesthetic research on archival footage and photos. I read a lot of theses. And the bible for me was really Mamie’s memoir. I had a lot of conversations with Chicagoans and Mississippians: these two sister regions that have had this great migrational connection,” Deadwyler said. “So I just dug and dug and dug into those things and synthesized them with a kind of poetic understanding of who Mamie was and Emmett was because so many people have such a rich connection to this experience. Everyone thinks and knows that this could be you. This could be my cousin. Everyone connects to this experience that you are living a beautiful life of some sort and then tragedy comes. And yet she resoundingly builds herself back from something so wretched to activate herself into a different kind of mother.”

Till hits select theaters on October 14, expanding on October 28.