What the Movie Till Teaches Us About Whose Stories Get Told

9 minute read

The new movie Till, expanding to wide release on Friday, does not draw its title solely from the name of Emmett Till, the boy whose 1955 lynching remains one of American history’s best-known examples of racial brutality. The movie is also the story of the activism that horrific crime inspired in the life of Mamie Till-Mobley, his mother.

Till is a film about love, a film about justice, and a film about determination, says its director, Chinonye Chukwu. That’s the movie she wanted to make. On screen, there are staggering moments in which Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), almost broken, puts her hands on the mutilated remains of her son—the way, she says, a mother would. There is a scene in which she stands determined and stoic as mourners at his funeral react, in some cases physically, to the sight of her son’s mangled corpse. There are scenes in which she contends with the dual burdens of racism and sexism and struggles to be heard. And the film gives its final moments to Till-Mobley, drawing a line from her demands for justice all the way to an anti-lynching bill that finally became law this year.

When the producers behind Till approached Chukwu, she was initially hesitant and only agreed on a few conditions, she tells TIME. She would not make a film that portrayed physical acts of violence but would, in a way consistent with Till-Mobley’s decision to open her son’s casket, allow the world to see what American racism has done.

“I thought, I would be really excited about telling this story if it was told through Mamie’s point of view and it was about her journey, her fight for justice, the love that existed here between a mother and her son,” Chukwu says. “She is the foundation of the story and I wanted to center her, a Black woman, and her rightful place in history.”

Emmett Till’s story features prominently in this cultural moment. But Chukwu’s stance highlights another truth about Black stories in popular culture: some stories are more likely than others to be told. Stories about men, stories with so-called “sympathetic” central characters, stories in which the complexity of individuals is all too often blotted out. They are, more often than not, the tales of indefatigable underdogs who overcome. If the story is unavoidably sad, it must also feature some redemptive ending note. And, if the subject in any way involves the toll of American racism, the stories all too often implicate only places, policies, and people in the past.

Read more: Till and the Act of Witnessing Black Trauma Onscreen in 2022

And there are many stories, particularly stories about Black women, that continue to struggle mightily to be made.

The go-to explanation—or lie, wrapped in an excuse—says film critic Elvis Mitchell, director of a new documentary about Black film, Is That Black Enough For You?!? (in theaters now and streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 11), is that movies prominently featuring Black characters are risky and often unprofitable projects. In reality, Superfly, a 1972 neo-noir directed by Gordon Parks and distributed by Warner Bros., was so profitable, a former executive told Mitchell, that it kept the studio afloat. Several Black films that cost relatively little to make—or were given limited budgets—turned substantial profits during the same period, Mitchell says. Yet when a new “important” movie featuring Black characters emerges, its success tends to be treated as a surprise. Think Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

Others struggle to get that far. One prime example involves the actor Aunjanue Ellis and the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper and civil rights activist who helped force the Democratic Party to include Black voters in the presidential nomination process.

Ellis, who played Venus and Serena Williams’ mother in last year’s King Richard, grew up in Mississippi, the granddaughter of a Black pastor who welcomed the Freedom Riders at one of the first locations where they traveled to challenge the segregation of public facilities. When his church was attacked, he was arrested on false charges he had bombed his own church, she says. She was raised with intimate knowledge of Mississippi civil rights history and the potential danger of activism. But not once in school did she hear the name Fannie Lou Hamer.

Read more: ‘God Is Not Going to Put It in Your Lap.’ What Made Fannie Lou Hamer’s Message on Civil Rights So Radical—And So Enduring

Hamer was a Mississippi sharecropper who, after only learning in the 1960s that Black Americans had the right to vote, registered and then worked to get others to do the same, even amid threats and actual violence. She helped to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, famously challenging her state’s white-only establishment Democratic Party while also resisting the directives of male civil rights leaders to stand down. Hamer, the granddaughter of people who had been enslaved, was beaten while jailed, left with permanent disabilities. She was one of many Black women involuntarily sterilized, robbing her of the children she had long wanted. She struggled with depression. She was an American woman who changed America and was damaged in the fight.

In the early days of the pandemic, Aunjanue Ellis found herself with free time and a host of unfamiliar worries. She used those early months to learn more about Hamer—coming to feel that Hamer’s story could serve as a guiding light. The next step was clear: Ellis knew the “north star” she had discovered in Hamer should become more than a personal education project. She wanted to help tell this story to the world.

But Ellis, much as she wanted to portray Hamer on screen, says she could not find a writer to take on the story, even amid a flood of based-on-a-true-story biopics and streaming docu-series about white American anti-heroes. So she decided to try to write a limited series about Hamer herself. It didn’t get much traction, but a second attempt, this time a film screenplay called Sunflower: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story, did. Christine Sawnson, a director committed to the project, secured a $10,000 grant from the organization Chromatic Black via its Ida B. Wells Disrupting the Master Narrative Film Fund, to shoot a single scene. It consists primarily of Ellis delivering a version of the speech Hammer gave at the 1964 Democratic National Committee convention. The speech details Hamer’s arrest and beating along with the systemic brutality deployed to suppress Black voters in Mississippi and includes a simple but astonishing refrain: “That flag is drenched in our blood.” A few producers took meetings. Swanson submitted the script to a competition for scripts about women leaders, unbeknownst to Ellis. As a result, in 2022, Ellis won an Athena’s List Award.

But a production plan fell apart, she says, and the project is now back at “square one.”

There is, Ellis believes, still a pervasive fear of the risk involved in telling more complicated stories of less-than-perfect but deeply influential extraordinary Black human beings. They have presented the project to white producers who said no and Black ones who said the same. One producer described their storytelling approach as a “high-wire act.” That stuck with Ellis.

It’s unclear to her why that is a bad thing. Stories about Black women that do not “stay on the ground,” she says, are full of at least as much potential as what is now widely regarded as the definitive Mississippi Civil Rights era film, 1988’s Mississippi Burning, the story of the investigation into the real-life murders of three civil rights activists working to register voters. The movie, which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, tells the story through the eyes and experiences of a white character portrayed by Gene Hackman. Whatever its merits, Ellis says, it also contributed mightily to the still pervasive idea that Black Mississippians were so deeply and effectively oppressed that they did nothing to liberate themselves.

“What you see is often this rehashing or reinvention or a retelling of stories of prominent historical figures, being told in different variations,” she says. “ We’ve had several manifestations and interactions of MLK’s story, some of them are coming up soon…. And it’s not that we don’t need [them]. There’s so much that we don’t know, so much that we need to learn at this moment from any of those folks. But there are so many more, particularly women, who were, if we are really candid, the architects of those movements. The women were doing the building and the grunt work, but there’s not enough attention paid.”

The limits, she says, apply not just to which stories are told but also which types of stories Black women writers and directors often get to tell.

“That kind of cinematic act,” she says, of pushing against those norms, “is really, honestly—it’s defiant.”

And for those who doubt that stories are told on the screen matter, Ellis points out that changes to history curricula across the country have, in recent years, only made it less likely that most students will ever hear of Fannie Lou Hamer or others like her.

Of course, what is regarded as defiant does sometimes evolve.

More recently, Ellis and her sister wrote and sold a series that is a fictionalized account of real events in a Mississippi community where, since 2000, a rash of what many locals believe to be lynchings have been deemed suicides by local authorities. The concept has been optioned by producers and a major publishing house plans to distribute a comic-strip version.

And a woman like Mamie Till-Mobley can—even if 67 years after the events that made her an activist and grieving mother—end up at the center of her own story.

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