Whoopi Goldberg and the ‘Till’ cast on the importance of Emmett Till’s story

Whoopi Goldberg still remembers the first time she heard the name “Emmett Till.” The Oscar-winning actress was born in November 1955, only three months after the 14-year-old Chicago teenager was brutally murdered by two white men while visiting relatives in Mississippi, where he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, made the decision to show the evidence of their actions to the world, holding an open-casket funeral where everyone in the room — and, eventually, around the country — had to come face-to-face with what a hate crime looks like. “We had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation,” Till-Mobley famously said. “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”

The image of Till’s body seeped into America’s collective consciousness, particularly within Black communities in both Northern states, as well as the Deep South. “I had an older brother who ended up going to visit family in Jacksonville,” Goldberg says, thinking back on her New York City childhood. “I remember hearing my mother’s cautionary voice saying: ‘Remember what happened to Emmett. You don’t want that to happen to you.'” (Watch our video interview above.)

The story of Till’s murder and Till-Mobley’s attempts to hold his killers, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, accountable is told anew in till, a new drama from acclaimed filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu. Goldberg produced and plays a supporting role in the film as Emmett’s grandmother, Alma, while Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall play mother and son respectively. for The View host, till is the latest version of a cautionary tale that Black parents have been sharing with their children for over 60 years.

“When you hear Mamie tell Emmett, ‘When you’re down there, just be small,’ that’s what we hear,” Goldberg says. “That’s what systemic racism does: It makes you tell your children to be seen and not heard.”

Whoopi Goldberg plays Emmett Till’s grandmother, Alma, in till. (Photo: ©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection)

As dramatized by Chukwu and portrayed by Hall, till offers audiences the chance to see Emmett Till as the vibrant personality he was during his short life. Hall says that he consulted firsthand sources to learn more about his life, but also felt a natural kinship with the boy he would be playing. “I saw a lot of myself in Emmett,” the young actor remarks. “The connection with his mother, the love for music and smiling and dancing and overall just being a kid. So all of that pure-hearted love for his mom and family was easy for me to give, because I felt the same way.”

“Jalyn naturally embodied Emmett’s playfulness, innocence and naïveté,” Chukwu confirms. “I was also able to talk to him about Emmett’s personality, which was informed by family members who are with us today, as well as memoirs that were written. So he was able to soak all of that in.” (Till-Mobley died in 2003 and her own memoir, Death of Innocencewas published posthumously.)

Chukwu made a conscious choice not to depict Till’s murder in the film, and similarly avoided subjecting Hall to the lengthy make-up process that would have been required for the funeral scenes. (“That would have been a lot to sit with and get through,” the young actor admits.) Instead, a molding of Hall’s body was made and the make-up team recreated all of Till’s injuries on that mannequin.

“We were really intentional about every detail,” the director says, adding that she didn’t want to be “gratuitous” in the way she filmed Till’s body. “It was a harrowing experience reading the autopsy reports and the FBI files so we could replicate what was done to his body. It was a searing experience, but it was an important thing to be done.”

Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley and Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till in Till.  (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon /©United Artists Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley and Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till in till. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon /©United Artists Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection)

For Goldberg, the scene where Mamie first sees Emmett’s body in the morgue is one of the most powerful moments in the film. “Again, that’s what systemic racism okays: it gives people the right to treat someone the way they treated Emmett and to defile his body. But not so much that his mom couldn’t find him in that body. I still think [about] how it meant nothing to them to do this to him. I want people to see that’s what systemic racism leads to.”

Following Till’s murder, Till-Mobley tested at his killers’ trial only to watch an all-white jury quickly come back with a “not guilty” verdict. Although Millam and Bryant later confessed to the crime in look magazine, they both lived out the rest of their lives as free men. (Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, is the woman who accused Till and continues to avoid culpability in the crime.) In a striking visual choice, Chukwu presents Till-Mobley’s emotional testimony in a single close-up take.

“That wasn’t planned,” she reveals now. “I had eight or nine other shots planned, and that happened to be the first set-up. After the first take, Danielle got a standing ovation from the crew and after the second take, my cinematographer and I looked at each other and were like, ‘I don’t think we need anything else.’ You don’t want to look away from her face.”

Deadwyler — whose performance is already attracting Oscar buzz — remembers the challenge of “not falling to pieces” while shooting that sequence. “That scene is about what it means to be a Black mother in a courtroom space, with all of these white folks being completely oppositional to what she desires and the truth she’s trying to expose,” she explains. “She’s trying to maintain this kind of respectability while also being assaulted with the violence of their racism, innuendo and BS For me, it was about remembering what her experience was and trying to keep that in check.”

Mamie Till-Mobley (Deadwyler) takes the stand in (Photo: ©United Artists Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Mamie Till-Mobley (Deadwyler) takes the stand till. (Photo: ©United Artists Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even though Emmett Till’s story has been told many times in many different venues, Deadwyler feels that it’s necessary to hear again and again, especially at a time when the way history is taught is under attack by conservative critics who would seemingly prefer to whitewash the past . “In this current climate, people are trying to erase qualities of Black American history, which is also American history,” she says. “It’s important that we continue to tell these stories as deeply and as richly as we possibly can. This is the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement, so it’s imperative to keep telling it.”

“People keep trying to keep history books from being history books,” Goldberg says in agreement. “I find it’s more annoying to me because it’s like, ‘You know better. You know what happened — why are you trying to deny it?’ It’s like Holocaust deniers… or election deniers [film] will help to solidify the fact that we actually do have a problem and we are going to be in big trouble if we’re not careful, you know? Or bigger trouble.”

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Luis Saenz

till is currently playing in theaters

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