One of the first things you're likely to notice about Till is the color.
The film, about Mamie Till-Mobley's pursuit of justice after her son, 14-year-old Emmett Till, is brutally lynched in 1955, utilizes a vibrant palette, reclaiming a story of a mother's love and unimaginable perseverance with lushly hued color and an aesthetic brightness that would surely be desaturated from most other historical dramas that depict tragedies of the past.
"When I started constructing my directorial vision, one of the very first decisions I made was that the color palette was going to be colorful, bright, bold and vibrant," director Chinonye Chukwu says. "Because I wanted to reflect the beauty, the brilliance, the brightness of Black people, Black communities and Black spaces. I wanted to communicate that there's a light inside of us that cannot be extinguished, no matter the atrocities that are inflicted upon us."
Co-written by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, Till seeks to tell the true story behind the black-and-white photographs of Emmett Till that would become a major inflection point in the civil rights movement. Unfolding through the eyes of Mamie (played in the film by Danielle Deadwyler), the drama sees her galvanized into action and crescendos with her testimony during the trial of Emmett's murderers, captured onscreen in a single long take.
"I'm a very intentional filmmaker and I absolutely love the language of cinema," Chukwu says. (She became the first Black woman to win Sundance's U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize with her last film, 2019's Clemency.) "I love creating a rich visual language rooted in the story or that is an extension of the story."
In conversation with A.frame, the filmmaker reflects on the journey of bringing Till to light.
A.frame: Being approached to make a movie like this, that's something that I'm sure brings up all sorts of emotions. What ultimately made you say yes?
The opportunity to write and direct this in whatever way I believed that this story needed to be told, and thankfully, that was the way that the producers wanted the story to be told. To have that kind of creative autonomy to tell a story that centers Mamie and puts her in her rightful place in history, that was what attracted me the most to making this film. And knowing that I would have really supportive partners in the producers and in the studio. It doesn't happen all the time, as you can imagine. [Laughs] I just felt really supported and had the creative autonomy to make this film the way that I believe it needed to be made.
Conversely, what did you know would be your biggest challenge in bringing this story to the screen or what were you most concerned about?
I was approached a month or two after Clemency premiered at Sundance, and so I was very reluctant because I just didn't think I was in the emotional space to tap to make this film. So, even though I met with the producers the year Clemency premiered, it took me a year and a half before I really committed to moving forward and making the film. I took the year and a half to do a lot of research, and to visit Mississippi a few times, and to spend time and learn from members of the Till family. But in terms of the actual writing and directing, I needed to take some time to emotionally recalibrate after Clemency. That was its own journey. But then I was ready on a creative and emotional and spiritual level to tell the story and just dove in 200 percent.
How did you know that you had gotten to the point where you were emotionally ready to take this on?
It was a couple things. I took a break. [Laughs] I was going hard with Clemency and really, it took years of my life of deeply investing in that film, and so I hadn't silenced myself to just be still and just process and reflect. So, I just took that time. Also, there were other projects that I was working on that went away after the pandemic, and so my schedule cleared up a bit. And that was a year when there were global protests after George Floyd was murdered, and the importance of this film became clear yet again and reminded me, history continues to repeat itself. We got to get this film out now.
Mamie is at the center of the film, as you said, but Jalyn Hall is such a revelation as Emmett. How did you find him? And being so young, what were your conversations with him like about the weight of portraying someone like Emmett?
Jalyn submitted a tape, just like the many, many, many, many, many other child actors did. It was a good old-fashioned, "Let's go through the tapes!" And he blew me away. When I work with children, I keep things simple and succinct when it comes to direction, and he took that direction very well. He had a natural charm and charisma. He did his chem read with Danielle and they just hit it off immediately. I mean, he had swag, he had childhood innocence, he had natural talent, he took direction well, and the chemistry with Danielle was off the charts. After that chem read, Danielle and I talked and we're like, "Yeah, that's our Emmett. That's our Emmett."
There's so much joy in seeing him in those early scenes. The name Emmett Till has become so synonymous with what happened to him and of his place in the history of the civil rights movement — which, of course it should — but talk to me about reclaiming his humanity and his boyhood in this film.
Absolutely. That was one of my big intentions, is that I want him to be real and human and remind people that he was a real-life boy. I wanted to portray him in a way that transcended the black-and-white photo of his body. That's why I was intentional about making sure that we take some time in just seeing him be a person and show the genuine love, care, and humanity that existed between him and his mother. Because that is the heartbeat of this story: the love between them, the humanity between them, the care between them. People don't think about his personality. He was a jokester and he had charisma and charm and confidence and he stood in his power, and I wanted people to really see that.
With Danielle, what was it that you saw in her that made her right for Mamie?
When I cast actors, particularly actors in a leading role, one of the first things I think about is, can they communicate a story with their eyes? Can they get underneath and in between the words without saying a word? Can they hold and command a frame? Are they able to really communicate the depth and the emotional subtext behind the words? And Danielle checked all of those boxes. She sent in an audition tape when we were months into the process of looking for our Mamie, and she just blew me away. I called her back and we had a director session using the scene where Mamie is looking at Emmett's body, so there are no words. We spent a significant amount of time talking about the emotional and psychological beats in that scene, because when I talk to actors, it's always through the lens of what is going on emotionally and psychologically. Even if there's no words, we map out the beats and the emotional arc of that scene.
And it was such a fruitful working session, because she got it and she understood how to do that work and she took it to a whole 'nother level. And I knew that she was our Mamie. Then we spent several months before we started shooting going through every emotional, psychological beat in the script multiple times, and digging into the research, and talking every day about what is going on internally within Mamie. By the time we got on set, she had such an inherent emotional and psychological understanding of who Mamie was and what her arc and journey was going to be in the film. She really channeled Mamie and, I mean, it's one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever witnessed in my life.
On those most demanding days — that scene where she sees Emmett's body for the first time, or the scene where she gives her testimony — what did you feel that Danielle needed from you? And what did you need from Danielle in order to make those days happen?
First of all, trust. Those months that we were going through the script and rehearsing, it was also about building trust between us as people, and her knowing that I got her and I'll make sure that she has what she needs in order to just let go. That long take in the testimony scene was not planned. I'm a meticulous planner beforehand, just so I can throw everything out the window by the time we get to set. Because things happen! Things don't go as planned or you see certain magical moments and you just have to be present to and be open to them. I don't tell actors when I do something like that long take, because I want to keep them present in what's going on internally within their character. In order for me and Danielle to have created that moment, she needed to trust that I'm doing what I need to do on my end so she can go ahead and be present in her performance. So, whether or not I decided to shoot that with eight different setups or one long take, she was still going to give us that performance. It required a lot of trust. It was vulnerability. It was constant checking in with each other to make sure that we're protecting our well-being.
It was me limiting certain scenes to only two takes. So, the scene where she is receiving Emmett's body and where she's looking at Emmett's body for the first time, I limited that to two takes from the very beginning. I told the crew, "No matter what we get, make it as excellent as possible. But no matter what we get, two takes. That's it." I would tell that to Danielle, and I think that that also helped her feel safe and protected, because I don't want to put her through that many, many, many, many times. We had a therapist on set for the cast and crew, and so that was also a valuable resource. Also, I'm willing to stop everything for a minute when people need it. When we were shooting the scene when Emmett is abducted, after a take or two, Jalyn asked us to stop so that he could get a hug from his mom. And I stopped everything we were doing until he had his hug from his mom. And I didn't continue until he was ready. And if he was not ready to continue, we wouldn't have, and we would just make whatever we shot work. I think the actors seeing that of me really helped build the trust and helped them feel safe and protected to really go to the vulnerable places they needed to go.
How many takes did you do of Mamie's testimony?
We did six takes. Like I said, we had eight or nine other setups planned, and Mamie's closeup was the first one. After that first take, Danielle got a standing ovation from the crew. The performance was incredible. I was like, "Damn!" We did a few technical adjustments for the second take, and my cinematographer and I looked at each other and were like, "I think we could do this scene in a long take." Whenever I make any directorial decisions, it always has to be rooted in story and what's going on emotionally. I thought about all the emotional beats I wanted to hit with Mamie's character and also communicate the pressure that continues to build throughout that scene, especially when we enter cross-examination and the gazes of the room kind of pressing on her. I was like, "I can communicate this in a long take." So, we did more takes to adjust the framing and composition so we can communicate the world that is happening beyond the frame. That's why you see the hands of the lawyers and we begin with rack focusing from the jury to Mamie to establish the spatial relationship. Those kinds of adjustments were being worked in and tweaked with each take. Danielle's performance was consistently excellent. By the sixth take, we had it just right, and that's what was in the film.
I hope she got a hug after that.
Oh, she got hugs all the time. I mean, all the time! Many scenes, in between takes, she got hugs from me and we took quiet moments to just be with each other, and I never continued unless she was ready. The other actors and crew were incredibly supportive of her and each other. We had great care for each other. I remember when we were shooting the train station scene where Mamie receives Emmett's body, Danielle, when she performs, she performs with her whole body, and so in between those takes, she physically couldn't walk. And Sean Patrick Thomas, who plays Gene [Mobley], physically helped her sit up in the chair and he was very caring for her in between those takes. And we all were. We all were.
The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill was only just signed into law this year, as you note in the end title cards. What does it mean for you for this movie to be coming out now?
This is a movie that has been relevant for many, many, many, many decades. History continues to repeat itself. Now more than ever, not only with the Anti-Lynching Bill being passed, but the midterm elections are next month and voting rights are in peril. The same things that the people in this film — Medgar Evers, Mamie Till-Mobley, T.R.M. Howard, Ruby Hurley — have been fighting for, we continue to fight for. The fight has not ended, and now we're building on the legacy of freedom fighters from that time period and before them. This continues to be relevant and necessary, and hopefully it can really inspire hope and possibility and also light a fire under people to really keep the fight going, because history keeps repeating itself. Yes, some progress has been made, but a lot of things have stayed the same.