The tragic fate of young Emmett Till is the subject of the eponymous film by Chinonye Chukwu which is released this Wednesday in our dark rooms. Discover this terrible and moving true story.
Third feature film by Nigerian director Chinonye Chukwu (to whom we owe Clemency, Grand Prix at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019), Emmett Till looks back on the tragic story of a young black boy, lynched and tortured by white supremacists .
Adapted from a true story, the film begins in August 1955 and recounts the struggle of Mamie Till, a mother raising her 14-year-old son alone. She is the only black woman working for the US Air Force in Chicago. While vacationing in Mississippi, Emmett is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for complimenting a white woman.
Grandma shakes up consciences by insisting, during the funeral, that her son’s coffin should remain open and that public opinion should understand the horror he suffered. A strong gesture to refuse oppression and hatred. She also gives in to the magazine Jet the exclusive rights to publish photos of her mutilated son, so much so that the whole world is moved by this particularly atrocious lynching.
The feature film is carried by the remarkable Danielle Deadwyler (seen in the Paradise Lost and Watchmen series), who embodies the poignant heroine Mamie Till-Mobley, the solar Jalyn Hall who holds the title role of the film and by Whoopi Goldberg who embodies Emmett’s grandmother.
If several documentaries have already evoked the subject (The Murder of Emmett Till, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till or Face of Emmett Till), this is the first biopic to highlight this drama and the fight of this mother, to the origin of the creation of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
A Mother’s Struggle
The director explains:When I was approached to write and direct a film about Emmett Till, I saw the possibility of defying expectations and approaching the story from another angle – by adopting the maternal point of view of Mamie Till-Mobley . Without Grandma, her son’s journey would have vanished.
She was instrumental in shaping a modern civil rights movement that established an extraordinary framework for future activists and freedom fighters. I wanted to defend Grandma’s legacy and highlight it as it deserves.
She adds : “In her daily life, Grandma fought racism, sexism, misogyny, which only grew after Emmett’s murder. Grandma did not withdraw into herself. On the contrary, she became a fierce fighter for justice, which allowed me to understand and enrich my own journey as an activist. As a director, showing Mamie in all her humanity, in all her complexity, was of paramount importance..”
If the subject of the film remains the unpunished murder of this child, the director especially wanted to highlight Grandma’s journey after the tragedy. “She draws her strength from her love for her son because, at bottom, Emmett Till is a love story. Despite the pain and grief, it was essential for me to focus the story on the deep affection that unites Grandma and Emmett..”
The first scene of the film shows young Emmett and his mother singing in the car. A luminous scene of great tenderness which shows all the love that these two beings have for each other and which will touch the spectator in the heart. This sequence will also resonate in everyone during the moving testimony of this courageous mother at the trial of her son’s killers.
Emmett Till’s Story
Born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Emmett Louis Till nicknamed “Bobo”, was raised by his mother Grandma Elizabeth Till Mobley after the death of his father Louis Till in 1943 during the Second World War. The young boy grows up surrounded by love. If segregation in the cities of the North of the United States is not imposed by law, it exists all the same, but Grandma tries to ensure that her son does not suffer from it.
At the end of August 1955, Emmett was sent to Money, Mississippi, to his uncle Moses Wright. A state where segregation and racist violence are allowed and where white murderers are rarely charged. Between 1880 and 1955, more than 500 African Americans were lynched in Mississippi.
Worried about the trip, Grandma warns her son and tells him to watch his manners. But the young man can’t help but compliment Carolyn Bryant, the white manager of a store, by comparing her to a film actress whose photo he has in his wallet (NB: the photo that we see in the film is actually that of the real Carolyn Bryant).
The latter complains to her husband Roy Bryant and her brother-in-law JW Milam. On August 28, 1955, the latter went to Moses Wright and his family and kidnapped the young Emmett. They torture him and shoot him in the head before throwing his naked body into the Tallahatchie River.
The young boy was found horribly mutilated (his uncle identified him thanks to the ring he was wearing) a few days later and returned to a sealed coffin in Chicago.
But Grandma Till asks for her to be open so that she can see her only child one last time. Faced with the horror of the discovery of Emmett’s body, she decides to leave the coffin open during the funeral and to display photos of the boy before the tragedy.
At the same time, it authorizes the magazine Jet to publish unedited photos of his disfigured son so that the world can see the atrocity and violence of the lynching that Emmett suffered. She will say:I want people to see what we did to my son“. The photographs of David Jackson circulated throughout the country and caused a huge stir.
The symbol of the civil rights struggle in the segregationist America of the 50’s.
Nevertheless, after a trying trial for Mamie Till, the murderers are acquitted by a Grand Jury in Mississippi. The federal state will not reverse the decision. This court decision causes an outcry around the world and accelerates the American civil rights movement.
Less than a year after the trial, John W. Milam and Roy Bryant give an interview to the magazine look and confess to murdering Emmett Till. But thanks to Double Jeopardy Acta US law that prevents a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime, they are not bothered by justice.
In 2017, Carolyn Bryant admits to lying during the trial and admits that Emmett never assaulted her.
Thanks to her fight, Mamie Till galvanized a movement that led to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1957. She dedicated her life to the education of children and the fight for civil rights in the United States. Grandma Till Mobley died on January 6, 2003, aged 81.
The Emmet Till bill, making lynching a crime, was finally adopted on March 29, 2022. That is 67 years after his murder…
The young martyr has become a symbol thanks to the fight of his mother. He inspired Aimé Césaire to write the poem “On the State of the Union”the painting “Emmett Till: How She Sent Him and How She Got Him Back(2012) to artist Lisa Whittington and Harper Lee drew inspiration from her story for his famous novel “Shoot no mockingbird“.
On the music side, Emmylou Harris pays tribute to him through the song “My Name Is Emmett Till“, Melody Gardot took up her story for her song”preacherman” while Eric Bibb dedicates the title to him “Emmett’s Ghost“.
Martin Luther King Jr. often cited the lynching of the young boy in his speeches and Rosa Parks would cite the murder of Emmett Till as motivation for staying in his seat on the Montgomery bus in December 1955.