When filmmakers take on the heroes of America's civil rights movement — subjects rife with consequence and drama — the results can sometimes be too short-sighted, focused on sensationalism and tragedy, and not the longer tail of legacy. For Till, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu used the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till as an entry point, choosing to tell a story of the mother who refused to let the world ignore what white supremacy did to her child.
"My approach to making this film was that this was always a story about Mamie," Chukwu, 37, tells EW of Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, whose bereavement and political awakening would ultimately alter the course of history. 'It's her emotional journey, but it's also her journey into having an activist consciousness. I never approached the writing or the directing of this film through the lens of: This is a story about the violence that happened to Emmett."
The Nigerian-born Chukwu, whose 2019 Alfre Woodard-starring breakout Clemency marked her as a director keen to the quieter moments of actors, committed herself to a lengthy period of research in making Till. "I quickly realized there was a lot I didn't know," she says, "Black women are so often erased in society at large, particularly in history and our contributions presently, in terms of the civil rights movement and the freedom movement. That got me excited about digging in and contextualizing the story in that way."
Below, Chukwu reveals how she chose to handle Emmett Till's death, why having a therapist on set was essential to the production, and why she chose to start and end the film with joy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: During your research, you journeyed from Chicago to Mississippi several times. What did you learn from that?
CHINONYE CHUKWU: One of the things that was an invaluable resource was the 30 years of research that one of our producers, Keith Beauchamp, had done in his life, helping to reopen the case and having a mentee-mentor relationship with Mamie. He and the other producers were able to pass on that information to me. They were also able to provide a long list of people I could speak with.
I went to Mississippi a few times and was able to meet family members and go to a lot of the actual locations that are present in the film, or that are represented. That was really foundational for me and my own research, reading through transcripts and interviews, a lot of books, and going to these places physically.
Orion Pictures Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall in 'Till'
Early on you made the decision not to show any physical violence against Black people. But in the film, you have a lingering shot on Emmett's body in the coffin, which is pretty jarring and intense. What was your thought process behind that?
I didn't want to show what was physically done to Emmett. That is not the story. I didn't want to traumatize myself as a Black woman and I didn't want to traumatize audiences. Part of what incited such a global reaction to what happened to Emmett was that the world saw the aftermath of what happened. That is why I — and Mamie — chose to let the world see what happened to her son, because it was important for the world to see the product of this kind of white-supremacist system that we are living in. My decision to show that aftermath, to show the body, for a few seconds, is an extension of Mamie's decision to have the world see what happened, which was part of what was so galvanizing [about her] activism.
But there is a build-up to it. The effect, as opposed to what happened, what led up to it, is the more powerful choice. It's an extension of one of the decisions that Mamie made, that could be a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
How did it feel to have someone like Whoopi Goldberg stand behind your project and not only act in it, but produce as well?
Whoopi is fantastic. I mean, from my first meeting with her, just as a person, she was just so humble and down-to-earth, and just believed in me unconditionally, in my artistry and my point of view for this film. She was definitely one of my biggest supporters and advocates throughout the entire journey. It was such a joy working with her. She's a phenomenal actor, so it was a bit surreal for me, directing Whoopi Goldberg on set, but it was incredible. She was just so receiving of my direction and humble — and just talented and hilarious. Oh, my gosh, she was so funny on set and really helped to lighten the mood and energy, considering the story we're telling. It was just an incredible experience working with her. And Danielle is, I mean —
Phenomenal. She gives a transcendent performance. She really channeled Mamie: heart, mind, body, soul, spirit. And she was such a dream to work with. We spent several months digging into the script and every emotional beat. By the time we were on set, just literally every single take she had was excellent.
Andre D. Wagner / Orion Pictures Director Chinonye Chukwu, left, and actor Danielle Deadwyler on the set of 'Till'
Were you worried about the cast's emotional and mental health in the retelling of this real-life story?
We had a therapist on set every day, so that was really critical. And before shooting, we definitely talked as a group with the therapist — just constantly checking in throughout the day. I'm very protective of the actors I work with, particularly when they're children. So I was constantly reading energy and giving space and knowing that: All right, we only can do this in one take, or, We can only do this two times, that's it. I would let the crew know that, no matter what happens, this is it. We're not doing it again.
The children had their parents on set all the time — that was a really important bit. They had the parents and tutors and their therapists. Really letting people know and showing them that, at any point, whatever they need, we'll provide emotionally and physically. I think that was appreciated, and there was a lot of conversation. There were times when we just had to take a pause and just stop and recalibrate. I'm not trying to rush that at all, because wellbeing is critical.
You begin and end Till on notes of joy, not pain. By consciously making that decision, what were you hoping to convey?
In my own journey as a Black woman in the world, I've come to my own personal understanding that my joy is one of my greatest forms of resistance. Even though history is repeating itself and even though we are deeply entrenched in a white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society, one of my greatest powers or strengths as a Black woman is my joy. It's resistance. And it is really trying to tap into a light inside of me that no form of oppression can take away from me. I think that that is very hopeful and inspiring and empowering. It's a source of empowerment that I hold onto to help me navigate a lot of the darkness that exists in the world.
That kind of thinking is what was informing my approach in how to tell the story. We know that there's a not guilty verdict, but that there's a bigger story to that — that story is hope and possibility and empowerment. Nobody can take away the beauty and the power and the light and the joy that exists within and amongst Black folks, no matter what kinds of atrocities we're having to navigate. There can be community and love and empowerment alongside the inherent pain and frustration and sadness that comes along with being a Black person in the world.
Till arrives in select theaters Oct. 14, expanding on Oct. 28.
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