The horrific story of Emmitt Till is widely known. A 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was brutally murdered after allegedly hitting on a white woman in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. According to the FBI, around August 28, 1955, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home before being beaten and shot in the head. He then had a metal fan tied to his neck with barbed wire before being thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His body was recovered days later.
Two men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were acquitted of Till’s murder by an all-white, all-male jury, and no other person was ever indicted or prosecuted for involvement in the crime. The FBI says Bryant and Milam later confessed all of the details of their crime to a magazine journalist, but they did not face any consequences.
The story comes with a startling, defiant twist, as Till’s mother Mamie Till Bradley chose to to hold an open casket viewing for her son to ensure that the public was able to see what had been done to him, and Emmett’s face galvanized the Civil Rights movement for years to come.
The story is still capable of providing new insight, both globally and locally, as we saw amidst long overdue racial reckoning in recent years in the and the continued focus on being a more equitable society. Some of that new insight came in the form of new information. While searching a courthouse in Mississippi’s Leflore County in June, a team including members of the Till family unearthed a warrant meant for a “Mrs. Roy Bryant.” That’s Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who claimed Till whistled at her in a grocery store, spurring the most infamous lynching in U.S. history. The current Leflore County circuit clerk verified the warrant’s legitimacy, according to The Associated Press.
Much more insight came this week from director-screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu, who Mill Valley Film Fest lovers might remember as the director of the MVFF film Clemency starring Alfre Woodward in 2019. Chukwu was joined on stage by Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley.
“It’s a powerful choice, revealing the journey of a mother for whom grief becomes action—and whose action changes history,” MVFF Director of Programming Zoe Elton says, who calls Deadwyler’s performance as Till Mobley brilliant. She leads a cast that includes including Jalyn Hall, who exudes a confident charisma as Emmett, Whoopi Goldberg, and Frankie Faison, Elton says.
“Chukwu seemed to empower her cast to go deep in an incredibly truthful way, creating a breathtaking drama that confirms all the promise of her earlier work with sure-handed artistry and insight,” Elton says. “The emotional integrity of the cast is a great counterpoint to the wonderfully cinematic experience that she creates, with a confidence and style that recalls classic American film. This is a story both timeless and timely, as full of love as it is of grief.”
Chukwu walked the red carpet and was honored after the screening of the film this week.