Interview: Filmmaker and Star of Till on Telling a True Story, the Film’s Most Powerful Scene, and Mamie Till’s Legacy

Living most of my adult life in Chicago, the story and legacy of the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Chicago-native Emmett Till in Mississippi never really fades away. With so many of his family members living in and around Chicago, as well as his devoted mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, leading the charge to get justice for her son’s killing for as long as she was alive, the events surrounding Till’s death are engrained in the fabric of the city. This year alone, the local media covered the passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill in the U.S. Congress, making lynching a federal hate crime offense nationwide. Also, there was a concerted effort to finally hold Carolyn Bryant, who encouraged Till’s killers to track him down after he whistled at her, accountable after an unserved arrest warrant for Bryant was recently discovered. The case never goes away for the simple reason that no one has ever been convicted of killing Till.

With that and much else in mind, director Chinonye Chukwu (2019’s Clemency) was approached to tackle not just the brutal lynching of Till but also his mother’s vow to expose the racism behind his killing and her work to bring those responsible to justice. The resulting film, Till, is a powerful and deeply unsettling work with young Jalyn Hall as Emmett and the great Danielle Deadwyler (The Harder They Fall) as Mamie. The film primarily deals with the aftermath of Emmett’s murder, including the powerful testimony Mamie gave at the trial of the two men suspected of killing him. (Not long after they were found not guilty, they admitted they did it in a magazine interview and subsequently suffered no consequences).

Much like Mamie, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the end result of Emmitt’s beating, lynching and mutilation, although Chukwu was careful not to show any violence against any Black character at any point. The film shows the significant role that civil rights leader Medgar Evers played in the investigation, and the little-discussed importance of the Mount Bijou community and its founder, Dr. Theodore R.M. Howard. Parts of Till are familiar, but a great deal of it is eye-opening. And with a strong supporting cast that includes Frankie Faison, Tosin Cole, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Whoopi Goldberg as Emmet’s grandmother, the movie is more than just a history lesson; it’s a reminder that civil rights is an ongoing and ever-evolving process.

I recently had the chance to sit down with director Chukwu and lead actress Deadwyler in Chicago, and their commitment to shining a light on the nuances and bigger points of this story is impressive. Please enjoy our conversation…

When you’re telling any story based on a true story, there’s already a certain amount of pressure historically to get things right. When you add things like legacy to that story, it seems the pressure would be exponentially compounded. Was there any hesitation on either of your parts to take on this story and character?

Chinonye Chukwu: Hell yeah [laughs]! Do you want to go first?

Danielle Deadwyler: My feelings are known; I was nervous as hell. I’m in L.A., in the beginnings of doing [the Netflix series] From Scratch, and I’m looking for an apartment. I’m in a hotel, and your mind is scattered, and that’s when I got the script. And I couldn’t just sit into it; I had to read it in thirds. Along the way, that building nervousness and understanding of what this is started happening. I know what 1955 is. My mother was born in 1955; Whoopi was born in 1955. So the weight is there, and when I finally did finish it and finally found an apartment and could settle myself, and then I could do the audition. And she had the audacity to ask me to do a director’s session. 

In the same way that everybody had this binary, black-and-white understanding of the images—the Jet magazine images of the wailing Mamie Till and her mother and this funeral—I knew those things, and that’s what you’re dealing with. Then in the director’s session, we’re diving into the multiple pages of her examining the body for the first time and applying that scientific approach so that she can get through it. But in that moment, she’s humanizing her son and remembering every quality and experience and love and stories from foot to head. So you go through those experiences, and then they tell you, yes, they want you to do it. And there’s a moment of joy that you have work, that you will be able to subsist, but then there’s an instant switch of great responsibility and need for care for the historical quality and the legacy. It’s not even running blind; you have to dive head first into everything that you know you need, because there is a plethora of resources and perspectives and songs and poetry and texts. And then there’s the bible of Mamie’s memoir about this experience.

[To Chukwu] What about you?

CC: I absolutely had reservations. I was approached to do this film about a month or two after my last film, Clemency, so you can imagine I was not exactly in the emotional headspace to make this film. It’s not only the subject matter, but when you’re making a film, it’s years of your life, and I had just finished a committed five-and-a-half to six years of my life with Clemency. Could I really go right into another film? And my life shifted when my film won Sundance, and I was really thrust into the business and the industry of the art form that I’d dedicated my life to, and that was a new experience on top of the emotional weight of the story. So I took some time before even getting back to the producers, and then even after I met with them, I didn’t commit to begin the writing or prep for at least a year and a half. I took that time to do my own research and to emotionally recalibrate and really make sure that I was ready to dive in…and it is a dive. And then I got ready, and I was like “There’s a way that I can make this film and tell this story that also imbues hope and love and community.” And doing that really did help balance out the intensity of the story itself.

You mentioned that scene in the funeral home where Mamie first sees Emmett’s body. I want to talk about two scenes that are connected, and that’s the first one. Tell me about how you staged that sequence as well as Mamie’s testimony, which you shoot in a long unbroken take that is one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen. You seem very specific about how you reveal things, what you show, what you don’t show. In that funeral home scene, we don’t understand what she’s doing in examining his body, and then it pays off later when she fully explains it in her testimony. Did you see those two scenes as a whole?

CC: Yes. I’m very intentional about my directorial approach. When I construct my visual language, it comes from the story and the emotional and psychological subtext. So I knew that when planning for the scene where Mamie is looking at Emmett’s body, it needs to come from a place of humanization, not objectification. So we have to prioritize Mamie’s emotional experience of her looking at Emmett’s body, and we discover the body with Mamie. So that’s why we begin the scene with Emmett’s body obstructed by a table. We are using the silences—because silence is an aesthetic choice in my films—but we’re using the silence and the composition and framing to really preserve the privacy of the moment, between Mamie and her son, and just stay with Mamie’s emotional experience before we see the body. And then when we see the body, it’s piece by piece as Mamie is reconnecting with it, but she’s connecting in such a loving way that is humanizing and not voyeuristic. I wanted to preserve that, and yes, it is a call to what she says in the testimony later; we really get that in a visceral, emotional level.

How long is that shot?

CC: I don’t remember exactly; I think it’s six minutes and change. That was not planned. My cinematographer [Bobby Bukowski] and I had eight or nine setups planned, and I’m thinking we need those setups to communicate what I wanted to communicate, which was all of the layers of emotions that Mamie is navigating, the tension that keeps building and building, the gazes that are on her. The first setup was Mamie’s closeup, and after the first take, I said “Damn!” [laughs] Danielle got a standing ovation from the crew, and my cinematographer and I looked at each other and said, “I think we can do this in a oner.” I don’t ever communicate that with the actors I work with, so they can just be present in the moment, but I knew that in order for this to work as a long take, I needed to do some framing, composition and camera movement adjustments. We needed to rack focus from the jury to Mamie to understand the spacial relationship. We needed to bring in the hands and the ring and the photos from the lawyer, so we could understand the world beyond the frame, and the pressure outside of the frame stays on her. We had to adjust from take to take to get all of the technical stuff right, but once we got all that, combined with Danielle’s transformative, incredible performance, the sixth take is what is in the film.

[To Deadwyler] I can’t believe you could do that six times.

DD: I don’t remember.

Yes, just watching you, it looks like Mamie is experiencing an out-of-body moment. It makes sense you wouldn’t remember.

DD: It was seven pages, and I just did what was on the page. We lived from the historical accuracy of the transcripts. She did a lot to make that scene what it needed to be. I’m a theater-head from Atlanta. To be honest, everything I do is rooted in a theatrical practice. You’re supposed to be completely and utterly wrapped up in the scene. I don’t care how many takes we have to do; I’m supposed to give, and that’s what I did, hopefully. And some of that we worked on a lot, and the connectivity to the funeral home scene, I know all of that is carrying that tension through the entire way through the film, combating the rage and upholding the elegant respectability of that whole public and private nature that she’s experiencing in that moment. The private moment is the release of all of that, and the public moment is the upholding of it; she’s cracking but not completely. All of that is going into synthesizing those two experiences together to make the courtroom scene.

There’s a cadence in your voice, especially in that scene, that again seems quite deliberate. Do you remember adjusting your voice or delivery in a way? It seems like it’s Mamie’s attempt to hold it together.

DD: That’s what it is, that’s the respectability mode that goes into play once she’s having to deal with the defense, because you lean further into that, so that you don’t go into being a vernacular-based Black person at that point. Because if you break into being yourself, then they have even more reason to indict you and say that you’re a problematic mother, more so than they already have. You’re not a prosperous Black person at that point; you are everything they think you are. So she’s fighting that linguistically, all of that stuff. But this is the stuff that she comes to understand doesn’t matter; they were going to treat her and Emmett the way they treat Black people regardless of where you come from. So dealing with that kind of vocal arhythmic quality that plays throughout the scene—because it begins as softness early on, but then when you’re being attacked, you have to lean into that defense mechanism, which is very western defense, and it’s difficult. That’s even a thing now, in understanding the mothers of today. It doesn’t matter; we shouldn’t have to do any of this shit; we should just be able to be, and we shouldn’t be killed because of it.

I could have watched an entire movie about Mount Bijou and Dr. Howard, because I had no idea that place existed or what his great role was in the civil rights movement.

DD: Right? And that’s the beauty of the film and the quality of the joy, that these spaces and places existed. Mount Bijou is still there.

CC: Dr. Howard is an unsung hero, who eventually moved to Chicago to get away from what was coming for him.

Well thank you so much. Best of luck with this; it’s really wonderful.

CC: Thank you so much. You take care.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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