Emmett Till’s tragic story takes on new importance in 2022. Here, Danielle Deadwyler, who stars as Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, explains what she hopes audiences will take away from the film.
A mother’s love is one of the strongest forces on earth. It has the power to comfort and heal, is resilient, and can transcend unspeakable devastation. There are few better examples of the power of a mother’s love than that of Mamie Till-Mobley. She turned the tragedy of her 14-year-old son’s brutal 1955 lynching into a flashpoint for the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, Till was not the last Black child whose life was stolen due to racist violence. And, Till-Mobley was not the last mother who needed to weaponize the trauma of child loss for justice.
Today, Black parents fear losing their children to racism, including and specifically because of police brutality. Even as many killings go unreported, Black people, especially Black men, are disproportionately impacted. Till-Mobley’s legacy of using a mother’s love to further social justice activism and protecting Black children continues today through the work of organizations like Moms of Black Boys United (MOBB United). MOBB United is “dedicated to positively influencing how Black boys and men are perceived and treated by law enforcement and in society. MOBB United is a nationwide coalition of concerned moms of Black sons who represent every race, age, socioeconomic background, marital status, and education level.” Like Till-Mobley, the mothers of this organization share an unconditional love for their Black sons. They want others to see their children as human.
Till-Mobley’s example of advocacy, courage, and strength laid the foundation for future activists and Freedom Fighters. Too often, though, her advocacy is missed as we mourn collectively for Emmett Till’s loss. Till, a 2022 film that covers Till-Mobley’s efforts, shows this fight is as visible today as it was over half a century ago by telling Till’s story through his mother’s eyes.
The film, directed by Chinonye Chukwu and co-written by Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, stars Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley and Whoopi Goldberg as Mamie’s mother, Alma Carthan. In an interview with Kindred by Parents.com, Deadwyler shares her connection to the role and what she hopes audiences will take away from the film and Mamie’s legacy.
What drew you most to the role of Mamie, and what specific decisions did you make to portray the power of her love for her son?
This is a story I’ve known since childhood. It’s my personal history and legacy as a child of Atlanta, reared in civil rights institutions such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Cascade United Methodist Church, where Dr. King and Dr. Lowery were leaders and pastors. They were impacted by Mamie’s actions. I learned under folks who knew Mamie (unbeknownst to me then). Therefore, this connective tissue linked me, even though, I must say, I stepped slowly into it—a mighty task, an uneasy service, and yet a necessary one. [There was] a spiritual linkage that overwhelmed me. And I am a mother. I come from Black mothers and stand alongside Black mothers and those who mother in all bodies and forms. The love shared between Emmett and Mamie is correlative to that—boundless love. And I sought to reflect that with rigorous research, collaboration with Chinonye, and personal witnessing of what love looks like.
How do you feel Mamie’s love for Emmett changed the discussion around lynching in America?
Mamie’s love for Emmett in life and legacy shifted focus to a concealed terror and truth of the Black Southern experience. It magnified the violence [imposed] on Black peoples’ lives in a way it had not been witnessed before. A mother in rich and intentional care for the legacy and humanity of her son. Not clinical. Not barbaric. Ida B. Wells did so, with the word, to detail the wretchedness of lynching. In Mamie’s care, this is purpose. This is a truth revealed in an image, in loss, in mourning. In a love for the totality of a beautiful child, in the here and the after. It shook everyone into a knowing that this is happening—it happened—to a child.
How do you think Mamie was able to transfer her love, grief, and loss into action and how do you think other mothers (parents) can do the same?
Her action in speaking incessantly and truthfully of her experience, her growth into activism, and on the life and loss of Emmett was how she activated her love and grief. The simple act of communing, of resisting through talk and engagement, storytelling and art, organizing, and simple care, those are all modes of revolution Mamie employed to alchemize loss and mourning, and love into [the] expansion of self and community. Any parent can do this. Anyone can begin with a story and visceral truth and compassion.
“It is not that I dwell on the past. But the past shapes the way we are in the present and the way we will become what we are destined to become. It is only because I have finally understood the past, accepted it, embraced it, that I can fully live in the moment. And hardly a moment goes by when I don’t think about Emmett, and the lessons a son can teach a mother.”― Mamie Till-Mobley
Why do you think it took, until 2022, for the anti-lynching law to pass?
Racism persists in America. That is why it took until 2022. And it persists after 2022. This is a continuous fight for justice. All parties have not been held accountable for the acts leading to the death of Emmett Till in 1955.
What lessons or insights do you hope audiences will take away from the film and Mamie and Emmett’s story?
Inspiration. Beauty. Rigor. Power. Transformation. Mamie’s story embodies all of these terms. More important than my hope for audiences’ gain from the film is their own extension of these terms that they glean from witnessing the story and the expansion from Mamie’s legacy of fighting for justice to their own hand.