by Nkechi Taifa
I was eight months old when 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle Mose Wright’s home in Mississippi. The trial, a month later, had to have been continuously blasted on the news emanating from my family’s radio, centrally positioned in the living room. I was likely in my playpen, listening, incomprehensively of course, as family members gathered around the 1950s piece of furniture that talked. However, growing up I don’t ever recall my parents having a conversation with me about that particular lynching, or anyone else’s for that matter. But what will never be erased from my memory is stumbling upon the story as a preteen in a book in the den of our home, Langston Hughes’ and Milton Meltzer’s A Pictorial History of the Negro in America and reading about the horrific event.
The painful discovery left an indelible imprint upon me, probably because his murder happened at my life’s start. Indeed, my family’s timeline intersected with the Tills: Mamie was born in 1921, between the 1920 birth of my father and the 1923 birth of my mother. He, from northern-segregated Chicago and me, from southern-segregated D.C., our young and burgeoning generation hoped for a new future outside the most violent aspects of the Jim Crow/Apartheid era.
But Till didn’t get to grow up in that future. He became the Black equivalent of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, an unspoken spectre that hangs over every Black parent giving a teenage son or daughter, “The Talk.” As we see in the film, Mamie did give him the rules. But the reality is that a young Black boy in Chicago must have time to absorb the daily fear experienced by Black southerns in the face of constant naked terror. Because Emmett Till ran out of earthly time, his spirit became part of the universal time that connects past, present and future.
So now we have Till, a Hollywood feature movie based on real-life horror. It’s weird, almost surreal, because you know what’s going to happen. But you don’t have to look away because overt violence is thankfully off-screen. The actual lynching is not depicted, though the terrifying sounds overheard from a distance, aptly fill in the narrative blanks.
The filmmakers were smart enough to know that torture porn wouldn’t work here because the facts and pain behind the biopic constantly exist in our own minds. Like Black Panther Fred Hampton, whose family knew Till when they were both children, the story of what happened — the encounter at the grocery store, the confrontation at great-uncle Mose Wright’s house, the abduction, the 1955 lynching, the acquittal from an all-white jury in less than an hour — all of it thrust me and many others out of anger and shock and into political consciousness and a lifetime of hard, unglamorous, but fulfilling, work.
Nigerian-American film director Chinonye Chukwu, who is best known for the poignant drama, Clemency, inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, continues a creative pattern of filmmaking that exposes racism while focusing on a single character’s range of emotions. With Till, Chukwu skillfully paints a multidimensional Mamie as she masterfully pulls me into the mother’s handsomely furnished, middle-class home and life, delicately weaving in her incessant foreshadowing of dread.
The script, crafted by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, was compelling. Whoopi Goldberg, one of the many producers of the film, plays Till’s grandmother with the great power we are used to seeing from her. Danielle Deadwyler, who movingly epitomizes Mamie, will have to fight for her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations against sister powerhouses Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and my idol Viola Davis for The Woman King. Although I am rooting for all three, Deadwyler carries a slight advantage for me because of the portrayal of her bold choice to transform personal grief over her only son into a collective cry for justice that rings today.
I froze when Mamie cried at seeing her son trapped in that casket: Get him out of the box, he can’t breathe, she wailed. If that was dramatic license that placed the film in the present, it worked. Emmett Till’s mutilated, bloated face and body is soundless and still, captured in a grisly photograph enshrined in newspapers across the country, while George Floyd’s anguished face and voice are aching, pleading, and transformed into pixels generated around the world.
Theirs are the historical markers of Black screams and breath silenced by arrogant white power.
In Till’s case, the Mississippi acquitted murderers confessed their crime for a 1956 Look magazine payday. In Floyd’s case, the shock of accountability through conviction and incarceration woke up nonchalant Minneapolis police officers. With both, global attention to racial outrage generated huge movements — from Civil Rights and Black Power, to Black Lives.
The film’s authenticity moved me to tears. When the choir at the funeral burst into “It Is Well With My Soul,” my father’s favorite church song, it sent shivers through me as I recalled the sincerity behind the volume of my daddy’s voice, also sung by a chorus at his own funeral. To hear the ringing of that spiritual surrounding Till’s open casket was both chilling and filling.
Till reminded me that history reverberates with loud quakes. When Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969, the Black Panthers appeared to imitate Mamie’s action, in a way: they opened up the Panther apartment where the duo were murdered and invited the community in, who stood in a long line in front of the building, to witness where and how they were slain.
It remains unbelievable that it was not until earlier this year, after nearly a century, that anti-lynching legislation, titled the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill, was finally passed and signed into law. This small measure of justice is part testament to family members and others who refused to let the Till story die. And I pay homage to Beauchamp who has spent most of his life investigating the case. The new evidence — that Carolyn Bryant, the white woman that somehow felt threatened by the alleged flirt of a young boy, was with the mob and fingered Till, and that several Black field hands were forced (I presume) to assist the lynching — is good to know. But it has not significantly added to the core score.
I have always embraced Mamie Till Mobley’s “Open Up the Casket” metaphor — referring to the historic decision she made to demand an open casket for the world to see the brutalization of her son for itself — in my many speeches on the issue of reparations. After this stark example of cinematic time-travel, I renew my charge that no longer will the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears be buried; that we must continuously open up caskets and not only lay bare historic and contemporary atrocities toward Black people, but demand reparatory justice as well.
Nkechi Taifa is an attorney, scholar-activist and author of best seller books, including Black Power, Black Lawyer, My Audacious Quest for Justice.