TILL director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu has no intention of exploiting Black pain in her Emmett Till biographical drama.
“There will be no physical violence against Black people on-screen because I’m not interested in relishing in that kind of physical trauma,” Chukwu says in a new featurette about the film, which you can watch above.
TILL is based on the true story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was visiting Mississippi from Chicago in 1955 when he was abducted and violently murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, They were angry to hear that he had spoken to a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, in a grocery store.
Bryant and Milam were found not guilty of Till’s murder by an all-white jury in 1955, but confessed to committing the murder a year later. The FBI reopened the case after a historian found that Carolyn Bryant Donham had recanted her original testimony that Till had grabbed her and made sexually suggestive remarks, but the case was ultimately closed in 2021 with no new charges filed.
Chukwu’s vow not to show the horrific nature of Till’s last moments came amid criticism of film and television portrayals of violence against Black people, and accusations of exploitation. The criticisms recently arose around the release of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s 2020 film Antebellum, a slavery drama starring Janelle Monae. In Ellen E. Jones’ review for The Guardian, she asked, “Must suffering always be the lens on Black lives?”
Bush answered such criticisms in an interview with MovieMaker, saying Antebellum reflected reality: “I’m not going to participate as a co-conspirator in the erasure of our own history.”
In her piece Who Wants to Watch Black Pain? for The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis argues that there is an “underlying fatigue with pop culture in which the villain is racism itself. This fatigue has fueled a kind of genre creep, in which works of horror are grouped with productions as formally disparate as historical dramas about slavery and contemporary road-crime films under the impossibly broad banner of ‘Black trauma porn.'”
The Amazon series Them, about a Black family harassed by their neighbors after moving to a white neighborhood in Compton, also drew the ire of many critics and viewers, including writer Berneta L. Haynes, who tweeted, “Black trauma is just entertainment for black Hollywood filmmakers and white execs” in response to the trailer. HBO’s series Lovecraft County, about a Black family navigating Lovecraftian monsters in the Jim Crow era South, was also criticized: New York Times critic Maya Phillips complained that the series wanted to “upend racial and sexual stereotypes by providing nuanced, complex characters but more often ends up reinforcing those same stereotypes, serving offensive messages about Blackness, queerness, sexuality and gender in tasteless, gratuitous ways.”
Though TILL deals with subject matter undeniably linked to Black pain, Chukwu is choosing to focus less on the gruesome nature of his murder and more on the story of Till’s mother, Mamie, and her courageous determination to make the world remember her son.
“We’re going to begin and end in a place of joy,” Chukwu says.
TILL arrives in theaters in October.
Main Image: TILL director Chinonye Chukwu.