A film about the life and death of Emmett Till – the 14-year-old whose gruesome lynching in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement – had been in the works for decades before it found its way to Chinonye Chukwu, but all it took was an empowering thumbs up from James Bond film franchise producer Barbara Broccoli to convince her to take on the task.
Writer-director Chukwu had just premiered her 2019 film “Clemency” when Broccoli approached her with a new project. Three years later, Chukwu recalled Broccoli’s 10 “magic words” that sealed the deal: “‘You can take this in whatever creative direction you want.’”
Granted full artistic license, she chose Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Mobley as the film’s narrative vessel, and thus “Till” was born.
“The story I was interested in telling is the person who was responsible for telling this story,” Chukwu said of the mother’s viewpoint during a virtual event on July 21.
Till Mobley refused to endure her son’s historic death in silence, insisting on an open-coffin funeral so that people would have to bear witness to what he had suffered. Beyond the photographs that circulated from the funeral, she took her demands for justice across the country, teaching, speaking and doing activist work for the remainder of her life.
In a trailer shown during the virtual event, Till Mobley, as played by Danielle Deadwyler, channels her trauma into public speaking engagements and testifying at the trial of Emmett’s (Jalyn Hall) killers. But there is an equal measure of sequences portraying the loving relationship they shared during his short life, underscoring the devastation wrought by his death.
Centering on Till Mobley’s emotional journey was one of two “non-negotiables” Chukwu laid out for the producers. The other was that the film wouldn’t depict the physical brutality committed against the real young man.
“I don’t want to traumatize or re-trauamtize audiences or myself,” she explained. “We don’t need to see it to understand or get a sense of the horror that happened.”
Instead, Chukwu added dimension through a “very intense research journey” involving trips to Chicago and Mississippi, as well as studying transcripts, testimonies and interviews compiled by historians and the production team. Producer and co-writer Keith Beauchamp’s close relationship with the Till family “really opened the door for me and being embraced as the filmmaker of this movie, and making sure that we get it right on a factual level and an emotional level,” Chukwu said, adding that they would not have proceeded without their blessing.
Regardless of how much audiences already know going into the film, Chukwu is confident that they’ll walk away having learned something new. In particular, she hopes to shed light on all the steps Till Mobley took in “galvanizing media, in galvanizing community and the country” to fight for justice, along with how her definition of justice “evolved and expanded over time.”
In addition to Deadwyler and Hall, “Till” stars Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, and is producer Whoopi Goldberg. The film is also produced by Beauchamp, Broccoli, Thomas Levine, Frederick Zollo and Michael Reilly, who co-wrote the script with Beauchamp and Chukwu. Chukwu and Preston Holmes serve as executive producers.
“Till” opens in select theaters on Oct. 14 and will release nationwide on Oct. 28.