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 “EmmettTill.” The Oscar-winning actress was born in November 1955, only three monthsafter the 14-year-old Chicago teenager was brutally murdered by two white menwhile visiting relatives in Mississippi, where he allegedly whistled at awhite woman. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, made the decision to show theevidence of their actions to the world, holding an open-casket funeral whereeveryone 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 fartoo 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 theDeep South. “I had an older brother who ended up going to visit family inJacksonville,” Goldberg says, thinking back on her New York City childhood. “Iremember hearing my mother’s cautionary voice saying: ‘Remember what happenedto Emmett. You don’t want that to happen to you.'” (Watch our video interviewabove.)

The story of Till’s murder and Till-Mobley’s attempts to hold his killers, RoyBryant and JW Milam, accountable is told anew in till , a new drama fromacclaimed filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu. Goldberg produced and plays a supportingrole in the film as Emmett’s grandmother, Alma, while Danielle Deadwyler andJalyn Hall play mother and son respectively. for The View host, till isthe latest version of a cautionary tale that Black parents have been sharingwith 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: Itmakes you tell your children to be seen and not heard.”

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Whoopi Goldberg plays Emmett Till's grandmother in Till.  (Photo: UnitedArtists/Courtesy EverettCollection)

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 thechance to see Emmett Till as the vibrant personality he was during his shortlife. Hall says that he consulted firsthand sources to learn more about hislife, but also felt a natural kinship with the boy he would be playing. “I sawa lot of myself in Emmett,” the young actor remarks. “The connection with hismother, the love for music and smiling and dancing and overall just being akid. So all of that pure-hearted love for his mom and family was easy for meto give, because I felt the same way.”

“Jalyn naturally embodied Emmett’s playfulness, innocence and naïveté,” Chukwuconfirms. “I was also able to talk to him about Emmett’s personality, whichwas informed by family members who are with us today, as well as memoirs thatwere written. So he was able to soak all of that in.” (Till-Mobley died in2003 and her own memoir, Death of Innocence was published posthumously.)

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

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

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

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

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

Following Till’s murder, Till-Mobley tested at his killers’ trial only towatch 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 inthe crime.) In a striking visual choice, Chukwu presents Till-Mobley’semotional testimony in a single close-up take.

“That wasn’t planned,” she reveals now. “I had eight or nine other shotsplanned, 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, mycinematographer and I looked at each other and were like, ‘I don’t think weneed anything else.’ You don’t want to look away from her face.”

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

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

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

Even though Emmett Till’s story has been told many times in many differentvenues, Deadwyler feels that it’s necessary to hear again and again,especially at a time when the way history is taught is under attack byconservative critics who would seemingly prefer to whitewash the past . “Inthis current climate, people are trying to erase qualities of Black Americanhistory, which is also American history,” she says. “It’s important that wecontinue 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 imperativeto keep telling it.”

“People keep trying to keep history books from being history books,” Goldbergsays in agreement. “I find it’s more annoying to me because it’s like, ‘Youknow better. You know what happened — why are you trying to deny it?’ It’slike Holocaust deniers… or election deniers [film] will help to solidify thefact that we actually do have a problem and we are going to be in big troubleif 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