As conservatives work to eliminate classroom discussions of race that they say will make white children uncomfortable, a new film focused on Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, reminds us of the necessity of confronting the past — even the most painful aspects of it. For as long as racism and white supremacist violence operate as powerful forces in the U.S., and they obviously do, we will need films such as “Till” so we don’t lose sight of where we have been, where we are and where we need to go. Anyone paying attention to recent events in the U.S. — including the surge of hate crimes — knows the story of Emmett Till matters today.
Anyone paying attention to recent events knows the story of Emmett Till matters today.
Till was 14 years old in the summer of 1955 when he left Chicago by train to visit family in Money, Mississippi, where he later was lynched by a group of white men. His mother wouldn’t let the world look away from what happened to her son, and news of his murder became one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Davis Houck, the author of “Black Bodies in the River: Searching for Freedom Summer,” told me: “In order to understand America's racial past and present we have to understand Mississippi. And in order to understand Mississippi, we simply have to understand the Emmett Till case.”
We should expect the forthcoming film, directed by Chinonye Chukwu and co-written by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith A. Beauchamp, to be a powerful indictment of the impact of white supremacist violence and its enduring legacy in the U.S.
Houck describes Beauchamp, who produced the 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” as “the world's foremost Till expert,” and Beauchamp, who had a close relationship with Mamie Till Mobley and Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, told me his motivation for the movie project “came from my 28-year passion for getting justice for Emmett Louis Till and ensuring I fulfilled the promises I gave Mrs. Mamie Mobley and the late Simeon Wright before they passed away.”
When the trailer for the film was released last month, there were some negative reactions from Black people who criticized what they predicted would be a film that exploits Black trauma for profit. Many voiced their refusal to watch any historical film centered on Black people being harmed.
But the film, which will be released in October, promises to be a lot more than a story about a high-profile lynching. In fact, Chukwu said it doesn’t include depictions of Till’s brutal murder. “The crux of this story is not about the traumatic, physical violence inflicted upon Emmett — which is why I refused to depict such brutality in the film,” she explained, “but it is about Mamie’s remarkable journey in the aftermath.” Viewers should expect, then, a powerful story about how Black people have resisted white supremacist violence and how Black women have so often stood at the center of those struggles. By focusing on Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley, the film will provide a window into how Black women advocated for civil and human rights during one of the most transformative periods of U.S. history.
While he was in Mississippi, Till and a group of teenagers stopped by Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, owned by Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn.
What happened next has been the subject of much debate, as what Carolyn Bryant (now Carolyn Bryant Donham) has said has shifted over the years. She first said the teenager whistled at her. In other tellings, she said Till said “Bye baby!” as he left the store. She later claimed in court that he scared her by grabbing her around her waist and then boasting of having had sex with white women. But whether she first claimed that he had whistled or that he had called her “baby,” by insinuating that Till made a sexual advance, Carolyn Bryant sealed his fate.
Several days later, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, his half-brother, kidnapped Till from the home of his uncle, and they and several other white men brutally beat him, shot him in the head, used barbed wire to tie a 75-pound metal fan to his body and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. His disfigured and decomposing body was pulled from the water three days later.
After his body made it back to Chicago, Till Mobley insisted on an open casket at his funeral because she “wanted the whole world to see.” During the 1950s, she led a nationwide speaking campaign to denounce the persistent acts of violence against African Americans. Till Mobley collaborated with other civil rights activists across the country to advocate for an expansion of Black political rights, and up to her death in 2003, she never stopped fighting.
This film is yet another avenue through which Americans can effectively “confront the darkness” of the past.
The movie about her and her son comes out at an opportune moment. In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act — making lynching a federal hate crime. Passage of the act was the culmination of decades of political activism — led by Black women such as anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said of the new law: “It will not revise the fear and suffering that Black communities endured during those years. ... But signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law is a necessary step that signals our nation is willing to confront the darkness of its past to move towards a brighter future.”
This film is yet another avenue through which Americans can effectively “confront the darkness” of the past. Beauchamp said the Emmett Till story is arguably the most important one for Americans to return to in this moment. “There’s no other story that speaks more to this generation and times than the story of Emmett Till,” he told me. “The Till story is a reminder of grave injustice, as well as hope and change. ... By revisiting his story, we believe it will awaken the ‘sleeping giant’ for change in us once again.”
When conservatives try to evade difficult discussions about race and white supremacy, we should remember the example of Mamie Till Mobley. She refused to allow the world to look away. She wanted everyone to know what happened to her son, Emmett Till. It would be a shame if we turned our heads away from this film — and the important conversations it will spark.