‘Till’ Director, Cast on Making the Movie Centering on Emmett Till – The Hollywood Reporter
Three-quarters of the way through Till, Mamie Till, played by Danielle Deadwyler, takes the stand in a Mississippi courtroom where two men are being tried for the brutal murder of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, a Black boy from Chicago who’d been visiting relatives in the South when his life was mercilessly cut short. Photographed first in profile, then in close-up, she describes how she was able to identify her son’s mangled body and then recounts the warnings she’d given him about the necessity of acting deferential toward white Southerners. We hear the voices of the prosecutor and a defense attorney offscreen as they question her, but the focus remains steadily focused on Mamie for more than six excruciating minutes as the camera slowly pans around her, capturing every moment of her pain as she fights to hold back tears and then to contain her anger — and her heartbreak.
It’s a stunning scene as Deadwyler, who already has received a Gotham Award for outstanding lead performance, navigates her way through seven pages of dialogue. When director Chinonye Chukwu called cut, “You could hear a pin drop,” recalls cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and then, a beat, and the surrounding cast and crew burst into applause. Chukwu and Bukowski had arrived on the set that day with a shot list that called for first filming Deadwyler’s close-up and then breaking down the scene into other setups. But Chukwu quickly decided that wouldn’t be necessary. “It is about Mamie, her emotional moment, entering her POV and her gaze,” Chukwu explains, realizing Deadwyler’s performance in the close-up said it all. So, after making some technical camera adjustments, they shot the scene that way five more times, with the sixth take becoming the one that made it into the finished movie, which United Artists Releasing launched theatrically Oct. 14.
The 1955 case of Emmett Till — murdered after being accused of disrespecting a white woman — fueled the burgeoning civil rights movement because his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, refused to allow America to turn away, insisting on an open casket at his funeral and providing Jet magazine with images of his horribly disfigured corpse. The film, which took nearly two decades to reach the screen, is dedicated to her memory and the lifelong campaign she waged in pursuit of justice, which, though she died in 2003, ultimately resulted in Congress passing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act just this year.
Finally seeing the film realized has been “quite overwhelming but rewarding and bittersweet,” says Keith Beauchamp, a writer and producer on Till who has devoted much of his life to investigating the case, befriending Till-Mobley along the way.
“I say bittersweet because finally we’re here, spreading the story to the world, but some of the people who I thought would be by my side are no longer with us — and that of course includes Mother Mobley herself.” Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Beauchamp was just 10 years old when he first saw the images of Emmett in an old copy of Jet that his parents had kept. “My first education about the story of Emmett Till was through my parents when I discovered that photograph,” he remembers. “And then, when I got into high school, the first thing my parents would say when I’d leave the house at night was, ‘Don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.’ It became an education about the racism that still exists in this country. Unfortunately, later on I discovered that was often told to young Black kids at the time to make us aware of Emmett’s story and give us a warning to help us navigate a white-dominated society.”
While he studied criminal justice at Southern University expecting to become a civil rights attorney, Beauchamp instead found himself working in a summer job for a film production company in New York City. Asked what story he’d like to tell, in 1995 he began researching the Till case and wrote a script that was optioned by producers with connections to Showtime. But while that script ultimately was shelved, Beauchamp continued to conduct interviews, unearthing new details about the case, which led him to direct the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till that was released by ThinkFilm in 2005. His efforts contributed to the Justice Department reopening the case in 2004 — the two men first tried for the murder in 1955 were acquitted, although they later confessed to the crime in Look magazine — but a grand jury declined to hand out new indictments for others alleged to have been involved.
Meanwhile, about 18 years ago, Beauchamp was introduced to producers Tom Levine and Frederick Zollo, the latter of whose credits include the civil rights dramas Mississippi Burning (1988) and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), and, along with screenwriter Michael Reilly, he began fashioning a whole new screenplay. Barbara Broccoli, producer of the James Bond franchise, and Whoopi Goldberg boarded the project a few years later. “It was a tough movie to try to get made,” Broccoli attests. “It’s been a long journey. Over the years, we approached all kinds of people, and people were concerned, saying, ‘Who wants to see this film? It’s depressing and sad.’ They just couldn’t see it.”
But then, serendipitously, in 2020, MGM, home to the Bond movies, relaunched its Orion Pictures label, whose president Alana Mayo was charged with developing films that spotlighted underrepresented voices. Till, budgeted in the $20 million-plus range, more than fit the bill, especially when the producers sought as a director the Nigerian American filmmaker Chukwu, whose Clemency, a drama about capital punishment starring Alfre Woodard, bowed at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize. “This is kind of a remit for Orion, to make films of this nature and importance,” says Broccoli, “so it was fantastic to have the brand reignited under Alana’s leadership.”
Chukwu didn’t immediately leap at the offer, though. “I took my time in responding,” she admits. “I had just finished this deep, five-and-a-half-year dive in making Clemency, and just making any film takes a lot out of you. And also, when my film won Sundance, my whole world shifted, and I was just trying to get my bearings on that in terms of the industry. I was just not in an emotional space to immediately respond.” But the producers persisted, and Chukwu agreed to a meeting.
There, she was particularly impressed by Goldberg. “She was so humble and so real and just normal. She made me feel seen and heard as a human being, an artist and a Black woman,” says Chukwu, who shared her take on the material with the assembled producers. “If I were to do this,” she told them, “it would have to be through Mamie’s eyes, a character study about her emotional POV, because without Mamie, the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was. I was really only interested in centering this Black woman in her rightful place in history, and thankfully all the producers said that’s what we’re looking for.” Additionally, Chukwu stipulated, she didn’t “want to show physical violence onscreen,” to which they also agreed. Chukwu herself undertook a rewrite of the screenplay to meet her specifications.
The search for an actress to play Mamie would take some months. When her agent encouraged her to send in an audition tape, Deadwyler — an Atlanta stage actress whose breakthrough roles in the Netflix Western The Harder They Fall and the HBO Max postapocalyptic drama Station Eleven were still awaiting release — says she tiptoed into reading the script, taking a week to fully absorb it. Working from her home, she put together a tape that included two solo scenes and, enlisting her own 12-year-old son as a scene partner, another in which Mamie warns Emmett about going to Mississippi.
As Chukwu describes it, the tape arrived “out of the blue.” She knew of Deadwyler but wasn’t familiar with her work. But as soon as she watched it, she texted Broccoli, “Oh my God, you’ve got to watch this tape.” As she explains, “When I cast a leading role, one of the first things I look for is, ‘Can they tell a story with just their eyes? Can they command and hold a frame? Can they really get underneath and between the words?’ And Danielle could do that.” Together, Chukwu and Deadwyler worked on a further scene, the searing moment in the funeral home when Mamie first sees Emmett’s grotesquely abused body. “That gave me an inkling into what the physical, emotional weight would be,” the actress says. Adds Chukwu, “We talked extensively of all the emotional, psychological beats that make up the arc of that scene, and I knew this was a woman I could be in partnership with, because we both knew that this journey was going to require us to be in lockstep with each other and be in constant communication.”
Jalyn Hall, the 15-year-old actor who’s had an ongoing role in The CW high school football series All American, was cast as Emmett after a successful chemistry reading with Deadwyler. Before taking on the role, he says: “Sadly, I only knew the surface information about the tragic events that had occurred. It was told to me at a young age as a cautionary tale — my mom’s efforts to shield me from those tragedies that unfortunately awaited Emmett.” But since Emmett in the film doesn’t know the fate that awaits him, Hall focused more on the relationship between the upbeat Emmett and his mother, with whom he has a close and loving bond. “A lot of the moments with me and Danielle are purely authentic to whatever we were talking about, whatever made her smile,” he says. Deadwyler credits Hall’s close relationship with his own mother, who was a presence on the set, for the rapport the two performers developed onscreen. “Jalyn told me, ‘My mother is my best friend,’ and because he has that relationship with his mom, he was open to having that same thing with me.”
As cast and crew assembled in Georgia for the start of filming in the fall of 2021, Chukwu knew revisiting such searing events could be traumatic for all and prepared for that. “In terms of being mindful of the emotional well-being of the cast and crew, we had an on-set therapist who was an amazing resource for everyone so they could process their emotions and feelings in real time,” she says. Still, emotions on the set often became palpable. After two takes of the scene when Emmett is abducted, Hall asked to take a break so he could hug his mom, which Chukwu granted without hesitation. In another scene, when Mamie breaks down upon receiving Emmett’s casket at the Chicago train station, Sean Patrick Thomas, as Gene Mobley, who became Mamie’s third husband, solicitously helped Deadwyler up to her feet between takes after her outpouring of pain left her body exhausted. Serving as his own camera operator, cinematographer Bukowski often found himself witnessing Deadwyler’s most wrenching moments up close, and he confesses, “I’m quite frankly amazed that the camera is not moving for a lot of it because literally there were times that my body was racked with sobs. You’re just 3 feet away from a woman’s face that is deep, deep into grief. You’d have to be a stone not to be affected by it.”
Notes Chukwu: “There was such critical care for each other. I was very adamant about preserving silence when we needed to, but also I was adamant about levity and joy and laughter during other times. Because you have to have that balance. Sometimes you need a dance break or to crack a joke to break the ice. So there was a mixture of that throughout the shoot as well.”
Deadwyler agrees. “We needed levity,” she says, citing Goldberg in particular for “bringing the joy and jokes for days. I loved and appreciated her for that.” When she first became involved in the project years ago, there was some thought that Goldberg would play Mamie. As she aged out of the role, there was also some discussion about her directing, but, as Broccoli tells it, Goldberg said, “No, we have to get the best director there is.” So, eventually, while working as one of the producers, she also settled into the role of Alma, mother to Mamie and grandmother to Emmett. And, says Deadwyler, “She was a grandmotherly representation of what care is like — as a producer and as a collaborator and actor.”
The Tills’ familial warmth is particularly reflected in the film’s opening scenes in their Chicago household that Bukowski filmed as “a more lively, warm place to be. It’s home, it’s where Mamie lived and breathed. We set up the very last shot of the film so that she finally comes back home and walks into Emmett’s room at night and then the sun comes up and the room becomes consciously lighter. It’s preserved as a place of the beauty and joy and light in her heart for her son.” By contrast, in the Mississippi scenes, Bukowski shot the film so that “it’s more humid, so there’s a haziness. When you enter into that cotton field, it’s important to feel the unremitting heat that’s on these people.”
With so many key moments filmed in close-up, Bukowski also says that Chukwu was “very interested in lighting the faces so that they really came out, so we could see the texture of their skin, the color of their skin, the blackness of their eyes, with a spark in it. It’s quite a different process to light dark skin as opposed to very light skin. It takes more bigger, softer light sources because that skin can be quite reflective. The other thing, with Danielle, it was very important for us to consistently get a good light in her eyes because there are a lot of close-ups of her that are really telling us what’s inside her even if she’s not talking. The expression in her eyes was paramount.”
To provide an accompanying musical score for such charged material, both Chukwu and composer Abel Korzeniowski wanted to avoid the obvious. “The score was never meant to tell the audience, ‘You have to be sad, this is really painful,’ ” the composer explains. “In some scenes, we don’t have a score at all. Chinonye really wanted the music to provide an additional level of emotional context and structure to the film. From the very beginning, we wanted a representation of the fear and anxiety that a Black mother feels for her children.”
In the key sequence, when Mamie confronts her dead son’s body, the score at first “is almost like the buzzing of fluorescent lights, like a hovering pain, that threatening anxiety that has finally come true,” he says. “Everything she feared has come to pass, and it’s the worst imaginable outcome. And then it turns into something else — turning that anxiety into anger and then compelling Mamie to do something unheard of and very brave. That’s the main theme: how pain is transformed and overcome.” Seconds Chukwu, “When you do start to really hear the score, it plays to Mamie’s building rage and definitive vision to have the world see what happened to her son — as opposed to the tears we see on her face.”
Witnessing the moving results, Beauchamp concludes of Till‘s years-long odyssey: “Thanks to Chinonye coming in with her vision, we were all able to tell the story that we all wanted to tell. I made a promise to Mother Mobley before she passed that the story would be told on the big screen. And now we were able to keep that promise.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.