From the Lifeless Pages of History Books to the Big Screen: Chinonye Chukwu’s Till (2022)

By Sabrina Völz

“The lynch­ing of my son has shown me that what hap­pens to any of us

any­where in the world had bet­ter be the busi­ness of us all.”

Mamie Till-Bradley in Till

Photo credit: Maxim Hopman
Pho­to cred­it: Max­im Hopman

The name Till is one that most Amer­i­cans and many peo­ple around the world will rec­og­nize from their civ­il rights his­to­ry lessons. In 1955, while vis­it­ing fam­i­ly, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chica­go, was bru­tal­ly beat­en and mur­dered for alleged­ly flirt­ing with and whistling at a mar­ried white woman near Mon­ey, Mis­sis­sip­pi. His bloat­ed body was lat­er found in the Tal­la­hatchie River.

I must admit that when I first heard about the film Till, it imme­di­ate­ly sparked my curios­i­ty. Yes, I thought. The heinous crime that caused a media fren­zy and gal­va­nized the civ­il rights move­ment needs to be brought to new gen­er­a­tions. But wait. We live in an age of trig­ger warn­ings (state­ments that alert read­ers or view­ers to poten­tial­ly dis­turb­ing con­tent) and audi­ences with a height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to vio­lence. So how can film direc­tor Chi­nonye Chuk­wu draw view­ers to movie the­aters and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly do jus­tice to the bru­tal­i­ty of that crime?

It also intrigued me that Chuk­wu placed Emmett Till’s moth­er, Mamie Till-Bradley, in the film’s cen­ter. If she’s men­tioned at all in Amer­i­can his­to­ry text­books, it’s main­ly to rec­og­nize the role she played in the deci­sion to show the world what South­ern hatred looked like. She was the dri­ving force to ensure an open cas­ket at Emmett Till’s funer­al. So what does the film reveal that most his­to­ry books do not?

To answer those ques­tions, I did what I always do when delv­ing into a his­to­ry-ori­ent­ed film. I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to start my research and bought Tim­o­thy B. Tyson’s non­fic­tion book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schus­ter, 2017). Instead of doing a prop­er film review that would exceed this blog’s scope, I’d like to con­cen­trate on a few aspects that direct­ly relate to the ques­tions posed above.

First, Chuk­wu didn’t cap­ture the bru­tal beat­ing and lynch­ing direct­ly on film. The scene lead­ing up to Emmett’s kid­nap­ping fore­shad­ows the events that fol­low; screams are heard in the dis­tance. It’s prob­a­bly a wise choice since – as grue­some as the post-lynch­ing pho­tographs of Emmett Till cir­cu­lat­ing on the inter­net are with a face dis­fig­ured beyond recog­ni­tion – they do not actu­al­ly do jus­tice to the vio­lence he endured. View at your own cau­tion: Accord­ing to Tyson, the funer­al direc­tor who pre­pared Emmett Till’s body took – against the wish­es of Mamie – a few lib­er­ties to make the sight of Till’s remains more bear­able. Nei­ther the icon­ic pho­to men­tioned above nor the movie Till show the ca 3‑inch by 2.5‑inch chuck of the skull that had fall­en out or the “dan­gling eye­ball” that had been forced out of its socket.

Sec­ond, instead of con­cen­trat­ing on the vio­lence and risk­ing the dis­gust of the view­ers, Chuk­wu focus­es a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the film on reac­tion shots and scenes to under­line the severe trau­ma the lynch­ing caused not only Mamie and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers but also oth­er Blacks and some of the funer­al atten­dees. Vio­lence to one Black per­son may evoke the cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of ca. 4,000 lynch­ings of Black peo­ple in the U.S. and oth­er acts of vio­lence, such as the whip­pings and dis­fig­ure­ment of enslaved Blacks, the rapes of Black women by white men, and acts of police bru­tal­i­ty against Blacks. Till illu­mi­nates this con­cept brilliantly.

The his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate scenes include one in which Mamie, too weak to walk, is brought in a wheel­chair to pick up her son’s sealed cas­ket. She throws her­self on the cof­fin sur­round­ed by a mob of jour­nal­ists and the cam­era lens­es of dozens of pho­tog­ra­phers. Anoth­er depicts the first moments in the Chica­go morgue after the cof­fin is unsealed. Mamie’s insis­tence on wit­ness­ing her son’s remains is an act of pure defi­ance. After a short peri­od of hor­ror, Mamie com­pos­es her­self when asked to iden­ti­fy the body, ten­der­ly inspect­ing and touch­ing her son from the feet upwards. These are acts of deep mater­nal love. Oth­ers depict the seem­ing­ly nev­er-end­ing lines of moan­ing, shocked, faint­ing, and/or wail­ing peo­ple pass­ing Emmett Till’s remains in his cas­ket with a sealed glass top.

These pow­er­ful sequences stark­ly con­trast with the steril­i­ty of the tri­al attend­ed by Mamie against the wish­es of her fam­i­ly and advi­sors. Despite the evi­dence, the accused are acquit­ted, which sets Mamie on her life’s mis­sion to pre­serve her son’s mem­o­ry, cre­ate aware­ness, and fur­ther the caus­es of the civ­il rights move­ment. Mamie’s resilience and deter­mi­na­tion are inspir­ing as she is shown deliv­er­ing speech­es to large crowds.

All in all, Chuk­wu has fleshed out the Till sto­ry: “A lot of peo­ple are say­ing that they thought they knew the sto­ry, but actu­al­ly you don’t.” I couldn’t agree more.

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