Q&A: Till director Chinonye Chukwu on the importance of remembering Emmett Till’s story and his mother’s fight

The feature film opens in Atlanta today and nationwide on October 28

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Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler as Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley

Photograph courtesy of Orion Pictures

Atlanta florists should be on high alert. With the new filmed-in-Georgia drama Till, Atlanta native and local stage favorite Danielle Deadwyler is poised to collect all of the flowers due to her. In director Chinonye Chukwu’s heartbreaking biopic of Mamie Till-Mobley, Deadwyler plays the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was beaten, shot in the head, and lynched for complimenting a white woman while on vacation visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Deadwyler doesn’t play Mamie as much as she embodies her.

But Deadwyler’s electrifying performance won’t surprise anyone in the Atlanta theater community who has seen the Spelman College graduate on stage at the Alliance Theatre, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, Synchronicity Theatre, or Aurora Theatre.

Deadwyler is so riveting in Till, she’s certain to be on the short list for Outstanding Lead Actress when the Oscar nominations are announced early next year. And you read it here first—her unforgettable performance in the scene where Mamie is alone with Emmett’s unrecognizable body in Chicago’s A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home will be one that is highlighted on the 2023 Oscars telecast. It’s visceral and gut-wrenching. And when it’s over, Mamie is transformed from grieving mother to an activist icon who would spend the rest of her life reminding the world what racism did to the boy she nicknamed Bo, all while fighting for a more equal America.

Till opens in select cities (including Atlanta) on October 14 and nationwide on October 28. In the following Q&A with Atlanta magazine, Till director Chinonye Chukwu discusses Deadwyler’s powerful performance and why the story of Emmett Till remains sadly relevant today.

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Chinonye Chukwu and Deadwyler on the set of Till

Photograph courtesy of Orion Pictures

Given the headlines in the news, why is telling Emmett’s story still so necessary in 2022?
It’s not just Emmett’s story, it’s Mamie’s story as well. It’s the story of her work after her son’s lynching that helped become a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Not only is this film relevant for today, but there is a lot to be learned from Mamie’s journey, the work she did, the work that others did, like Medgar Evers, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, and Myrlie Evers. While, sadly, there are a lot of parallels in terms of racialized violence that are still very pervasive in this world, you can also take away from the film the certain strategies and testimonies of activism—both big and small—that can help combat some of those racialized oppressions.

Danielle Deadwyler is the lynch pin in this film. What impressed you most about her bravery and commitment in bringing Mamie Till to life?
Danielle Deadwyler puts her mind, body, and spirit and gives her mind, body, and spirit to this role. She channels Mamie’s spirit, her energy, and she does so in a way that is all-encompassing. In between certain takes, she would sometimes physically collapse and need to take some time to recalibrate. She feels the performance in her bones and in her body. That’s what you see on screen—that unwavering, unconditional commitment to this role.

A lot of us know Jalyn Hall from playing Dillon James on the CW series All-American. When did you know you had found Bo?
He auditioned, we called him back, and he did a chemistry reading with Danielle. In the chemistry reading, I said, Oh, this is Emmett. Not only is Jalyn really talented, but he has this child-like charisma and charm. He’s still a boy. He was 14 when we shot the film. He’s a great actor who still embodies the spirit of a child because he is a child. It was so beautiful watching Jalyn and Danielle together and the chemistry they had. [Danielle and I both] knew from the moment we did the chemistry reading.

Jalyn was the same age as Emmett, and the script puts him in a lot of traumatic scenes. How did that inform your direction?
I’m very protective of all of my actors and the crew members, but especially when they’re children. First and foremost, I formed a relationship with his mother. His mom was incredible. She was on set every day, and he’s very close to his mother. There was a scene where he just needed to pause, take a moment, and get a hug from his mom. We make space for that. It was about listening to what he needs and paying attention to when we just need to take a break or move on. We also had an on-set therapist every day for the cast and the crew so they could go and unpack things. The producers and I were also like aunties and uncles to him. I was just very mindful of what he needed emotionally and psychologically.

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Chukwu and Hall on the set of Till

Photograph courtesy of Orion Pictures

We have to discuss the funeral home scene. It’s essential to this story. It literally becomes the cover of Jet magazine. She testifies about it on the stand at the trial of the white men who murdered her son. But how in the world did Danielle get through that as an actor, and how does one go about directing that?
That scene was actually the scene Danielle did for her call-back. We discussed it in the director’s session. We talked extensively about all of the emotional beats in that scene. Part of my job is to direct the subtext. I said to her, This is not just about pain; there is a rising anger that is going on inside of Mamie. We worked on tracking the non-verbal beats throughout that scene that all lead to that decision. Because we did that work, we were able to build upon that when we shot the film. I told the crew, We’ve got two takes to get this. I wasn’t going to put Danielle through more than two takes. No matter what we got—two takes. So everyone was hyper-focused on making sure we got it as right as possible.

Whoopi Goldberg is a Till producer and plays the grandma, Alma. She has this 90-second scene with Danielle that just knocks you out of your seat. Whoopi Goldberg—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner and icon. Did you allow any of that to factor into directing that moment or was it just “We need to get the shot”?
We needed to get the shot! (laughs). I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing! I allowed myself those moments when I got home at night to take a moment and say, Wow, I directed Whoopi Goldberg today! But on set, I was like, Okay, I’ve got a job to do.

Before he goes to Mississippi, Mamie and Emmett have to have “the conversation,” the same conversation Black parents still have to have with their children in 2022. Was that important for you to convey?
Yes, it’s that and the fact that it really happened, and it’s also about the conversation Mamie has with Myrlie in the film. This still happened even though she did the best she could to prepare Emmett without taking away his childhood. That conservation Mamie has with Emmett reverberates throughout the film.

Till film 2022In the film, Mamie is urged to lend her voice to the movement in an effort to get a federal law passed outlawing lynching. You had to be in editing when Congress finally passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in March and was signed into law by the president. What was going through your mind when you got the news?
I was in post [production]. There was definitely that moment with me and the producers where we just said, Whoa. It took long enough—67 years. It added yet another layer of relevance and necessity to the film.

There’s so much relevancy in Till in 2022. There’s even that conspiracy theory line the Mississippi sheriff trots out that sounds like it could have come from the mouth of Alex Jones. What do you want audiences to take with them from Till?
I want people to see the relevance, I want people to see themselves in the humanities of the people on screen. I hope it can lead people to want to learn more, to Google, to read a few books, and to learn of this history that is so relevant in our present. To ask themselves the question: How can I contribute to the world in a way that moves it forward, whether that’s big or small? I hope this film can start those conversations.