The film opens opens with Mamie and Emmett Till gliding down the road in 1950s Chicago. Emmett, who Mamie affectionately calls “Bo Bo” cranks up the family’s car radio. The crooked grin plastered across his cherubic face never falters as he belts along to the upbeat melody.
But as the camera begins to focus on Mamie, a different emotion entirely flickers behind her wide-glassy eyes. The smile has fallen from her full lips, and glints of terror dance behind actress Danielle Deadwyler’s emotive brown eyes.
The classic horror elements of this scene are “intentional,” says the film’s director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the film Clemency.
“It was intentional in the way it was shot,” says Chukwu. “Especially for those who do know what’s coming in terms of what will happen to Emmett.”
Most Americans, especially most Black Americans, will at least have heard of Emmett Till before heading into theaters to see the film.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered and lynched by two white men while visiting family in rural Mississippi in 1955 after her allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. The two men who murdered Emmett Till, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, went to trial, but an all-white jury acquitted them.
Rather than gawking at the gruesome tragedy of his death, Chukwu says she hopes to take viewers on a journey with his mother Mamie, who becomes a prominent civil rights activist after her son’s murder.
“I’ve always been acutely aware of the cultural, historical and present significance of this story,” says Chukwu. “The best way that I can honor that responsibility is by making this film in a way that prioritizes and centers the humanity of Mamie and all of the people who are part of our community in this story…by making them real multi-dimensional people who are presented and seen through a Black gaze as opposed to a voyeuristic objectifying lens.”
There are certainly moments in this film that can be hard to watch, especially as someone in a Black body in the United States. But the film treads carefully along some of the more brutal scenes, like the unveiling of Emmett’s body after his murder.
“That decision was an extension of Mamie’s decision to have the world see what had happened to her son,” says Chukwu. “I had to honor that part of her story, that was a critical part of what made her decision and her activism, a catalyst for the modern American civil rights movement.”
The emergence of the civil rights movement as a collectivist struggle is a central theme in the film. Mamie’s activism is rooted in her deep personal loss. But she grows to understand that her struggle for justice is much bigger than just herself, says Chukwu, who worked with Mamie’s protege, Keith Beauchamp, to produce the film.
In one scene pulled from a real speech given by Mamie, she talks about opening her eyes to the wider struggle for civil rights.
“She speaks to this middle class bubble that she was in before her son was taken from her, and then her bubble bursts and puts her on this journey of evolving and expanding racial consciousness,” says Chukwu. “That made her realize that she is connected to all black people and to all communities. And her oppressions are tied to other people’s oppressions.”
Ultimately, this isn’t just a film about what has been taken from Black people. It’s also a story about the ties that connected us in the 1950s, and in our current-era, says Chukwu.
“I hope it can really instigate people to ask themselves how can I be a change agent in the world in the way that works best for me,” says Chukwu? “How can I go beyond my own personal bubble? Because we are all connected.”