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My mission to get Till made is a 29-year promise fulfilled. The reality of seeing something that I’ve wanted for my entire adulthood come to life has been both overwhelming and frightening. I realize the subject matter is not an easy one, and I was afraid that bringing this story out at this time of global racial fatigue could detract from my reasons for wanting to make this film in the first place — to awaken the consciousness for change, because the injustice that befell Emmett Louis Till in 1955 is still among us today.
I grew up Black in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I learned about the murder of Emmett Louis Till when I was 10 years old while looking through an old Jet magazine in my parents’ study. So, I was always aware of his story and how it was used as a cautionary tale about the racism that still exists. But even when you’re living in this harsh reality, you’re still young and you feel invincible.
Then, two weeks before my high school graduation in 1989, I was brutally assaulted by club bouncers, including an undercover police officer, for dancing with a white classmate. I was taken to a secluded room in the nightclub, handcuffed to a chair and beaten. The case was investigated by Internal Affairs, then went to trial, where it was eventually thrown out. The incident was traumatic and it reminded me of the parallels of what happened to Emmett Till and so many others like us. This wake-up call inspired me to speak for the voiceless, the unheard and for those who have suffered grave injustice.
I entered college with the goal of becoming a civil rights attorney. Toward my junior year, I was introduced to filmmaking by my best friend and moved to New York City to work at his sister’s film production company. One evening I was asked: If there was a story I would most like to tell, what would that be? Emmett Till came to mind. I wrote a screenplay the best way I knew how. It was eventually optioned by producers and shelved.
Disappointed, I thought it was too important a story to leave untold, so I decided to contact Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley in hopes of our producing the film together. I spent nine years going back and forth to the Mississippi Delta convincing witnesses to speak with me while I gathered details and facts for a documentary on Emmett. It was our belief that in order to get the case reopened (in 1955, an all-white jury pronounced the perpetrators of Till’s murder not guilty; they later confessed in an interview), I must first have the evidence, the support of the public and, lastly, the platform of mass media. With the encouragement of Mamie Till-Mobley, the award-winning 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till was produced and led to the reopening of the nearly 50-year-old case. In 2007, the case went to a Mississippi grand jury, which refused to indict the remaining perpetrators. Sadly, Mother Mobley died a year before the case reopened.
It was around this time that producers Thomas Levine and Fred Zollo (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi) reached out to me about making a feature on Emmett Till. We began collaborating and, years later, engaged Michael Reilly, with whom I wrote a screenplay bringing Mamie Till-Mobley’s story to compelling life. I wanted the world to understand her legacy as a catalyst for mobilizing the civil rights movement.
Powerhouse producers Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Broccoli, who are both so brilliant and tenacious, came on board and joined our ongoing journey to get Till financed and made. When the talented director Chinonye Chukwu agreed to direct, she brought a fearless commitment as a filmmaker and shared our collective vision in centering young Mother Mobley’s voice while also being sensitive and refraining from showing violence against Black bodies onscreen. We found a studio partner with MGM’s Orion label, which shared our passion for bringing Till to the screen.
When we were on set during production, there were days when we watched the phenomenal Danielle Deadwyler embody a young and fearless Mother Mobley in a way that was visceral. I have never witnessed a performance like this onscreen and could not imagine anyone going through what she experienced. Seeing Danielle’s ability to inhabit the spirit of my mentor kept me and the crew visibly emotional and sometimes moved to tears.
Till is complete now. It has opened in theaters in the U.S. and will open internationally over the next few months. We’ve toured the country with the film — screening for colleges and universities, at festivals, for civil rights icons like Myrlie Evers, and for peers in the industry. We’ve also screened in Mississippi and Chicago for members of the Till family, friends of Mother Mobley and of Emmett from his childhood.
They are still waiting for justice, and many have joined me to continue this ongoing fight. We see this film as not just a movie, but as a movement. We must not forget Mamie Till-Mobley’s fight for justice. We must not look away.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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