The Tragedy of “Till” Is Our Failure to Grasp Its Radical Politics

The Tragedy of “Till” Is Our Failure to Grasp Its Radical Politics

The Tragedy of Till Is Our Failure to Grasp Its Radical Politics

Director Chinonye Chukwu shifts the lens from Emmett Till’s tortured body to Mamie Till-Mobley’s vibrant mind and the movement she helped spawn.


Danielle Deadwyler was widely expected to receive an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley in Chinonye Chukwu’s extraordinary film Till. She consistently received the strongest reviews of any lead actress. Manhola Dargis wrote in The New York Times, “With fixed intensity and supple quicksilver emotional changes, Deadwyler rises to the occasion as Mamie, delivering a quiet, centralizing performance.” Ronda Penrice of The Wrap concurred: “This magnificent performance elevates Deadwyler to the ranks of the great actors of our time.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody described her performance as “one of the most radiantly, resonantly expressive to grace the screen this year.” Even before she snagged the Gotham Award for outstanding lead performance in November, she had already secured a spot on virtually every critic’s Oscar prediction list. So when neither Deadwyler nor Viola Davis received Oscar nods, it sent tremors through the industry and beyond. Rolling Stone critic Marlow Stern noted, “Deadwyler’s snub is perhaps the most shocking, given the gravity of the role and how she rose to the occasion.” Richard Brody was also “shocked,” as was fellow New Yorker critic Michael Shulman, who called Deadwyler “a contender” for how she “took a grieving-mother role that could have been clichéd and made her thrillingly alive and complicated.” Sarah Polley, writer/director of the Oscar-nominated Women Talking, urged her Twitter followers to see Till, adding that Deadwyler “gave one of the best performances of all time.”

The Oscar nominees for best actress were Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and four white women: Cate Blanchett (Tár), Michelle Williams (The Fablemans), Ana de Armas (Blonde), and Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie). Twitter lit up, reviving #Oscarsowhite and crying foul, while director Chinonye Chukwu and Deadwyler herself risked their own Hollywood standing by calling out the industry’s “unabashed misogyny towards Black women.” What made this snub especially egregious was the manner in which Deadwyler and Davis were pushed out of contention. In what has laughably been called a “grassroots” campaign, an all-white group of A-list actors—including Gwenyth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Demi Moore, Jennifer Aniston, Amy Adams, Rosanna Arquette, Ed Norton, even Cate Blanchett—used their power and connections to lobby on Andrea Riseborough’s behalf. Skirting the Academy’s rules against lobbying, they hosted private screenings of To Leslie, took to social media, and used every opportunity to promote a film that grossed only $27,000 at the box office. Perhaps fittingly, Blanchett, de Armas, and Riseborough were nominated for playing white women whose suffering is largely the result of self-inflicted wounds. Till is about a Black woman who lost her only child to racist terror but transformed her personal grief into political struggle and in doing so found a community and a calling.

The charge that the Academy is rife with misogynoir is neither unreasonable nor surprising. In its 95-year history, only one Black woman has won the Oscar for Best Actress: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. Despite token efforts to diversify its ranks, 81 percent of its voting members remains white, and members are not required to watch all of the submissions, including films considered front-runners. I suspect that many members simply skipped Till, which is consistent with a portion of the public that expressed reluctance to see the film.

Till earned just over $10 million at the box office—about half of its total budget. In the era of “wokeness fatigue,” we might expect white liberals tired of racial reckoning rhetoric and bearing witness to Black suffering to avoid the film. Another common refrain was that the story is so familiar there was no reason to see it. The murder of the 14-year-old Till and subsequent trial and acquittal of his killers are well-documented in books and documentaries, including an excellent film by Keith Beauchamp, a producer on Till and coauthor of the screenplay. But the only reason we believe we “know” the story is because Mamie Till-Mobley made the fateful decision to expose her son’s battered body to the world. And yet, aside from her own memoir, The Death of Innocence, Mamie’s story is overshadowed by the spectacle of Emmett’s body, the depravity of white violence, and the global outrage sparked by his death. Before Till, she was largely rendered a symbol, a martyr, a mother, and a vessel for the NAACP—not a leader, thinker, a profoundly eloquent critic of injustice, or a complex human being.

Chinonye Chukwu shifts the lens from Emmett’s tortured body to Mamie’s vibrant mind and the movement she helped spawn. The false assertion that this is yet another story of white violence and black trauma has not only kept people from seeing Till; it has also kept us from seeing Mamie, whose political vision and leadership Deadwyler made visible and palpable. By focusing on how the intimate bond between a Black mother and son drove Mamie’s struggle for justice, the film offers an alternative to the male-oriented charismatic politics that persists to this day.

Full disclosure: Deadwyler is my former graduate student and a close acquaintance of 18 years. She is not typical of Hollywood. A child of Atlanta’s Black arts community and a Spelman graduate; she earned an MA in American studies from Columbia University, an MFA in creative writing from Ashland University, and was seriously considering doctoral programs when she decided to pursue a life in the arts. She is an award-winning multimedia artist, poet, writer, dancer, experimental filmmaker, and a voracious reader steeped in literature, cultural studies, history, feminist theory, and Black studies. In other words, she has spent her life preparing for the role of Mamie Till-Mobley, which in turn prepared her for the racialized and gendered power politics of the industry. “I was clear about the Academy,” she explained to me, “an institution founded 95 years ago in a system that did not give a damn about black people, nor any other people of color for that matter. I was steeling myself for what I know could happen, for what I know tends to happen.”

What no one expected is that Till also faced a groundswell of Black opposition before it was even released. A segment of Black Twitter denounced Till as the latest example of “Black trauma porn.” After watching the trailer, Syracuse professor Jenn M. Jackson, a self-described “queer, feminist, abolitionist scholar,” tweeted “I’d literally rather sweep the beach with a broken pushbroom before I’d want to sit in a theater and experience an Emmitt [sic] Till movie.” The attacks continued even after the film’s release. When film critic Matt Neglia tweeted, “I cannot sing the praises of Danielle Deadwyler enough.… She’s my pick to win the Oscar for Best Actress,” Kolby Mac, the critic for Minorities Report, replied, “I doubt the campaign will be strong enough tho. The sentiments I’m reading from Black Audiences is that we’re tired of these stories. Only so much trauma films we can take.” The suggestion that Till might actually harm Black audiences even seeped into a few early reviews in mainstream publications. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times asked, “Is a Hollywood movie about Till’s life and death something anyone needs to see?” Writing for The Guardian, Adrian Horton, a young white woman fresh out of Harvard, wondered if the story should be told at all. “The specter of Black pain molded into entertainment, of art made from the trauma of American anti-Blackness…[is] a questionable premise. What does this reliving of Emmett Till’s brutal murder and Mamie’s subsequent activism accomplish? For whom are we conjuring the unimaginable pain of ghosts of past?”

But Chinonye Chukwu did not make a film about the killing of Emmett Till. She made a film about an extraordinarily loving relationship between a mother and son, Mamie’s transformation, and the making of a movement. She chose not to show the violence inflicted on Emmett Till, or on any Black person for that matter, because “I didn’t want to traumatize myself as a Black woman and I didn’t want to traumatize audiences.” Instead, she depicted the terror through distant screams and a replica of Emmett’s body less terrifying than the original image. Chukwu’s choices earned the film a PG-13 rating. To assuage Black fears, the producers released a promotional video in which Chukwu states unequivocally, “There will be no physical violence against Black people on-screen, because I’m not interested in relishing in that kind of physical trauma. We’re going to begin and end in a place of joy.” Deadwyler herself appealed to audiences, asking them not “to turn a blind eye to history.” She evoked Mamie to remind people why we should not be afraid to see. “In the same way that people did not want to look at Emmett, you’re saying it again by saying you don’t want to see [the film].… With love, I ask you to be a witness.”

On one level, I get it. Images of anti-Black violence have reached a saturation point. We live in a time when a limited series about Jeffrey Dahmer killing and cannibalizing young men and boys of color is all the rage, when countless videos of police killing Black people continue to flood social and mainstream media, when the release of footage of the beating of Tyre Nichols is promoted as a prime-time event. Yet it is striking how these entreaties not to see Till resemble the right’s relentless attacks on the 1619 Project or Florida and Iowa’s laws against discussing racism, sexism, and related topics that allegedly cause “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress.” We are asked to avoid Till for the same ostensible reasons the right suppresses the violent history of the US as a settler nation founded on slavery and dispossession: It causes distress and trauma. Meanwhile, as Adam Manno writes in the Daily Beast, for those of us “understandably tired of stories of Black sorrow,” we should instead turn to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a film that looks “toward the future when it comes to Black lives on screen.”

Whatever the merits of the Black Panther franchise, I’ve never understood the enthusiasm for Wakanda—a society riven by rule of an aristocracy with a monopoly of knowledge, an accumulation of wealth based on mineral extraction, and a massive stockpile of weapons. The long, unbearably violent scene in the first film of Wakandans killing other Africans en masse while a white CIA agent manning a Wakanda aircraft saves the world did not elicit complaints of trauma. And its neoliberal fairytale ending, where Wakanda’s ruling class returns to the birthplace of the actual Black Panther Party to buy up condemned properties for redevelopment and introduce STEM to little ghetto boys, was sold as a victory for Black liberation. Wakanda Forever ends more nobly, with a gesture toward dreams of Black-Indigenous alliance—but only after relentless war between Wakanda and Talokan, the undersea Indigenous kingdom bent on destroying the imperialist order. Dreams notwithstanding, Wakanda’s forces prevail, sparing the Global North from an Indigenous anti-imperialist insurgency.

Contrast Wakanda with Mound Bayou, Miss., the all-Black town that served as headquarters for Mamie and the Black journalists and organizers, like Medgar and Myrlie Evers, seeking justice for her son. This was the home of Dr. T.R.M. Howard, played deftly by Roger Guenveur Smith, and a self-sufficient, fearless, militant Black community that revered Mamie’s courage and treated Emmett as their own son. Where are our “Mound Bayou Forever” or “Jackson Forever” T-shirts? Till is not imperial fantasy but Black history, holding up Mississippi as a locus of the Black resistance to fascism—a fascism, as recently reported in The Nation, that continues to escalate.

The greatest tragedy of Till is our failure to grasp its radical politics. Mamie’s political “awakening,” as it were, derived not from the NAACP but from her capacity to turn grief, 34 years’ experience as a Black woman in America, and 14 unbroken years of maternal love (“He was a perfect baby”) into strength and insight. Deadwyler carries this swirl of emotion and knowledge throughout the film, erupting most forcefully from the witness stand where she juxtaposes her son’s humanity and innocence with the state-sanctioned barbarity of white Mississippians. The scene is shot as a single take, the camera never leaving her face. Her interrogators are heard but not seen. Deadwyler’s performance is breathtaking. Her face is awash with shifting emotions as she recounts her son’s short life, his joyful naïveté, her herculean efforts to protect him, and her incalculable loss. Her intense stillness is unsettling precisely because she refused the stereotypical trope of the wailing Black mother. “I wanted to show something else,” she explained. “Once Mamie releases her anguish and pain, she had to channel her grief into the work. She knew she had something grander to do. But she couldn’t suppress her emotions. Every tear, every moment of emotionality along the spectrum, along this dynamism, is something different. We don’t get to see each moment as Black women go through this.” One of those moments occurred when Mamie visited the home of her uncle Mose Wright (“Preacher”), where Emmett had been taken. When she saw a shotgun hanging on the wall, she exploded. “You have a gun?! How long did you stand there doing nothing while they took my child?”

The film also conveyed a critique of the color-blind sexual politics of the #MeToo era. The chief object of Mamie’s derision is Carolyn Bryant. She wasn’t just culpable, having participated in Till’s abduction along with her husband Roy, Milam, and two of his Black employees. She was responsible for initiating his kidnapping and murder by falsely claiming she was assaulted. Although she admitted in 2017 that she lied, her sworn testimony contributed to the men’s acquittal. Mamie not only had to endure Carolyn Bryant’s lies in 1955 but see them legitimized 20 years later in Susan Brownmiller’s celebrated feminist critique of sexual violence, Against Our Will. Brownmiller wrote: “Emmett Till and J. W. Milam shared something in common. They both understood that the whistle was no small tweet.… it was a deliberate insult, just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.” Till is an unflinching critique of the assertion to always “believe women.”

Mamie Till-Mobley brought a vision of justice grounded in a distinctive Black maternal politics attentive to emotional and reproductive labor, the need to bear witness, an incipient Black feminist critique of state violence, and the importance of Black women’s leadership. Her vision contrasted sharply with the prevailing masculinist politics represented by silent or wailing Black mothers flanked by Benjamin Crump or the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mamie understood her marginal and precarious position in the movement through how she was treated by the NAACP. In 1955, about a month after the film ends, the NAACP broke ties with Mamie, publicly attacking her because she asked for $5,000 to cover her expenses and the wages lost for all of the speaking engagements she was asked to fulfill.

Deadwyler was always clear about Mamie’s politics and the lessons the film has to offer our current movements. She recognized Mamie’s legacy when RowVaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols’s mother, released photographs of his bruised and broken body, eye swollen shut, attached to a breathing tube, alongside photographs of the joyful, living, breathing son that loved her unconditionally for 29 years. “She wanted the world to see what she saw: her baby, the young man as she last touched him, the wounds she wished she had the power to heal, the handiwork of the state,” Deadwyler said. Although Wells refused to watch the video of five Memphis cops brutally beating her son to death, she summoned us to watch it. “She understood that the community must bear witness, that the video is a living legal document. It was intended to incite activism, not just to rouse.”

Mamie’s goal to “incite activism” stands in stark contrast to the liberal ideal that progress comes slowly by adjusting the law to make it consistent with the nation’s creed. At the Los Angeles premiere of Till, the legendary Myrlie Evers gave a brilliant speech from her wheelchair, reminding us that very little has changed since Emmett Till’s lynching—and that we need to build genuine cross-racial solidarity in order to fight back. When the film ended and the final credit indicated that, after decades, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Law was finally passed in 2022, the room erupted in wild applause. It was as if we had overcome. It’s as if they hadn’t heard Myrlie Evers speech or grasped Deadwyler’s delivery of Mamie’s final words: “The murder 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.” It is still happening.

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