With only two feature films under her belt, Chinonye Chukwu has already proven herself an actor’s director. The stars of her films give grounded, breathtaking performances rooted in their characters’ psychological truth: her first, Clemency, found the incandescent Alfre Woodward at the center of a searing drama about capital punishment and gave Aldis Hodge a signature role; in the upcoming till, she again works that magic with Danielle Deadwyler, Whoopi Goldberg, and John Douglas Thompson.
At first, Chukwu tells The AV Club, she didn’t think she had “the emotional capacity” to tell the story of the lynching and murder of Emmett Till. But when she dug into the research, she found her way in: centering the 14-year-old’s activist mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (played by Deadwyler with devastating perceptiveness), and telling a love story between a mother and son instead of showing Black bodies being tortured on screen. Her co-written screenplay also digs into the family dynamics of the Till clan, particularly with Moses Wright (Thompson), a cousin on whose watch Emmett was kidnapped. Here, Chukwu reveals how she and her team went about recreating scenes etched in memory and history, while foregrounding the emotional lives of the people who lived through them.
The AV Club: When you were first asked to tell the Emmett Till story, I imagine that was daunting. What was your reaction?
Chinonye Chukwu: I was approached about a month or two after my last film Clemency premiered at Sundance. I didn’t think I had the emotional capacity to tell this story at that time. Also, my life had shifted in terms of being thrust into that kind of business and industry of filmmaking. There was a lot going on in my world. And so, it took me some time before I actually responded. My approach and belief in my vision was that there was no other way to tell it other than through Mamie’s perspective. I was insisting about it beginning and ending in a space of joy and love. I knew that that would be the best narrative choice and it would help me be emotionally ready to do it. It would balance the emotional intensity of making this film. Because when you’re making the film, you’re in it in such a fully immersive way. Once I shared with the producers my non-negotiables, they were on board. That helped alleviate some of the anxieties that I had about jumping into this. Still, it took about a year and a half before I was ready to fully dive in and make the film and begin rewriting the script. During that time I was getting caught up on all of the research that had been done.
AVC: There was already a script written when you joined the project. What was your contribution to the script that we see realized on screen?
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CC: When I was approached, there was a script written by two producers, Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilley, years ago. It was essentially a very long accumulation of important facts and research that Keith had done. I did a page one rewrite. I rewrote everything, a completely different script that was about Grandma. I came in and wrote a story using the facts, information, and research that was in their draft. It was important that the story I was telling was rooted in historical accuracy and in fact. They were able to use some of the court transcripts and some pieces from Mamie’s autobiography, and I was able to take that and make it into a very focused story, a character study and a love story. It’s not just an accumulation of facts or a documentary; this is a cinematic narrative.
AVC: You knew immediately that Mamie was going to be the center of your story?
CC: Oh, yeah, from the beginning. From the first moment I met with the producers I said, I’m not doing it unless that’s the case. That was a big reason why I needed to write my own version of the script. This needed to be a story about Grandma and her emotional journey. Because without Grandma, we wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was. She’s the heartbeat of this. It’s inspiring to know about her journey after Emmett’s lynching and her intentionality in the strategy that informs her activism.
AVC: At the New York Film Festival premiere, you said that where the camera focuses is its own act of resistance. Where did you focus the camera?
CC: The focus of the camera was on the point of view and the gaze of Black people, particularly that of Mamie and the people who are a part of her ecosystem, seeing them centered visually. Who’s in frame and who’s not in frame are both intentional choices. And so I knew that the way that I was going to center a Black gaze and center a Black perspective was by keeping the camera on Black people, particularly Mamie and people in her world, as opposed to prioritizing other gazes.
Another great example of that—something I was really intentional about—is when Moses identifies JW [Milam, one of Till’s murderers] in the courtroom during his testimony. We move into a low camera angle, emphasizing Moses and giving him visual power and strength. But that moment is about him and it’s a triumphant and courageous and powerful moment. Staying on him was a way to communicate that as opposed to cutting back into the faces of JW or Roy [Bryant]. It is about Moses.
AVC: Those scenes are powerful. John Douglas Thompson is amazing.
AVC: Speaking of which, between John Douglas Thompson and Danielle Deadwyler here, and Aldis Hodge and Alfre Woodard in Clemency, you’re building a reputation as an actor’s director. Can you talk about what goes into those collaborations?
CC: I love and respect the craft of acting so much. As a director, I really value and require to work with craft-driven actors. And what I mean by that is actors who are willing and able to dig into the meaning and the emotional and psychological subtext underneath and in between words. I write it with that intention, I direct with that intention. So when I cast actors, I cast actors who are able to do that work and willing to do that work, but also actors who can communicate a story with just their eyes. Actors who can nonverbally hold a frame, who could really dig into the silences and the pauses between words and in between dialogue. And then after being cast we really dig in together.
So Danielle checked all those boxes in terms of the kind of actor that I’m looking for. She is so in control and command of her craft and is willing to make herself vulnerable to it. After she was cast, we spent several months digging into every single emotional beat and nuance that existed throughout the script. And we did that multiple times, talking through the emotional psychology behind and underneath and in between the words, digging into months of research. By the time we got onto set, she had such an inherent emotional and psychological understanding of who Mamie was. When we were shooting scenes, which were all out of order, my job as director was to remind her where we were emotionally and psychologically in this moment, and to remind her of the work we did in prep, of the unpacking we did. If there was anything that I wanted to change or tweak or alter in her performance, my notes were always tied to emotional and psychological subtext. And I’m not telling her how to do something, I’m reminding her what’s going on inside Mamie at that moment. That’s how I worked with Alfre, that’s how I worked with Danielle, and with all the actors in my films. As we rehearse, it’s always in terms of what’s going on underneath the words so they can really perform from a place of humanity.
AVC: The scene between Mamie and Moses, and his admission of culpability after Emmett is murdered, was a new revelation to me about this story. How did you come up with it?
CC: That was something that Keith was able to uncover in the research. They were important facts that Keith and Michael laid out in their version of the script. Mamie and Moses did meet during the trial, and he did express his guilt and the complexities of that. I wanted to make clear the impossible choice and the impossible position that Moses was in. Especially for myself, and I’m sure many people in the present day would probably be thinking, “You got a gun, use it.” I wanted audiences to understand the world in which Moses was living, so we can understand that impossible situation and empathize with him. To show how what happened to Emmett had this effect on an ecosystem of people and affected a lot of people’s lives in so many different ways.
AVC: The film recreates the famous Jet magazine cover of Granny posing with Emmett’s mutilated body. Can you talk about working with everybody on your team to ensure that comes through as viscerally, yet as sensitively, as it does?
CC: Obviously that’s a critical part of the story, a very famous part of the story. I and all my department heads knew we had to get the recreation of that image absolutely perfect in every single detail. So, from the production designer to Marcy Rogers our costume designer to the cinematographer, everybody studied that image. I think we were living and breathing that image. It was while shooting that I had the idea of changing the aspect ratio, after Mamie and Gene [Mobley] got into position for the photo. It took me until the editing process to figure out the most concise way of communicating that. I had an “aha!” moment in the editing of going from changing the aspect ratio, and recreating the photo to superimposing that onto the cover of Jet Magazine. I thought this is a really effective way of bringing all of it together and communicating it in a way that’s succinct and visual.
AVC: Lastly, I love the final, uplifting shot of till. You talked about joy and love and taking care of Black audiences and that’s what I felt. What a way to send your audience out of the story. Congratulations.
CC: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.