AUP S2E11: Taking in ‘TILL’

AUP S2E11: Transcript

TRANSCRIBED: Albert Parnell

Completed 10/14/22

[00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified. 

Cortney Wills [00:00:09] Hello and welcome to Acting Up. The podcast that goes deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture, and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we’re going inside ‘Till’ . 

Cortney Wills [00:00:27] ‘Till’ is a new film coming out on October 14th that explores the life of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14 year old who was killed by a white mob in Mississippi, and whose death and the handling of that death by his mother galvanized the civil rights movement. I’m going to read a short synopsis because a lot of your listeners won’t have seen the film by the time you hear this podcast. So here’s a little taste of what’s to come. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu with a screenplay by Michael Riley and Keith Beauchamp and Chukwu. ‘Till’ tells the heartbreaking true story of the historic lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 through the eyes of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. This is what makes the film so compelling. It’s told from the perspective and experience of a Black woman. And it’s co-written and directed by a Black woman. 

Cortney Wills [00:01:20] Mamie Till-Mobley was a widowed single mother who is the head of her household, the only Black woman working for the Air Force in Chicago. Till-Mobley becomes a revolutionary by insisting that the world witnessed the horror of her brutally maimed son’s body in an open casket, viewing as an act of defiance against oppression and hate. She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy Till-Mobley also gave the exclusive rights to Jet magazine to publish the images of her son’s maimed body, which caused the lynching to gain worldwide notoriety. A mother’s audacity became a lightning rod in the civil rights movement and propelled her to reluctantly become an outspoken activist for the NAACP, advocating for social justice and education. So today, joining me is my esteemed colleague, Michael Harriot, who has also seen the film. And we just wanted to talk about, you know, what it was like to see this film, to digest it and how we think, you know, it’s going to hit not only the Black community, but all communities once it hits theaters. This film is already getting Oscar buzz before it hits the big screen. And it’s one of those films that, at least speaking for myself, I already knew the story going in. But I think a lot of viewers won’t have known that. And that in itself is a little bit shocking. Michael, thanks for joining me. 

Michael Harriot [00:02:41] Thank you for having me. 

Cortney Wills [00:02:44] So gosh this film till I’ve been knowing that that it was in the making for years actually I caught up with the director years ago at Sundance when she premiered Clemency, which was another amazing film that was about someone on death row. And she told me that she had just started working on this story. So it’s been a couple of years that I knew that it was coming. It’s got a lot of buzz, you know, and now it’s here. And I watched it a few days ago in the privacy of my own home, thankfully. And I’m just still kind of grappling with where I think it will land in the broader audience. Where did you watch it and what was your first reaction to it? 

Michael Harriot [00:03:33] So I saw it at a screening, so I saw it in a theater. And my reaction is, you know, I think it a dumb approach to the story. You know, when you hear the name Till and in relation to this film, you think it is the story of what happened specifically to Emmett and not the story of his mother, which a lot of people don’t know the story of. And so I thought it was a good approach to a subject that a lot of people already know about. I think, you know, there are some nuances in the story that they covered well and they didn’t necessarily focus on like the egregious lynching of Emmett as much as, you know, how this affected the family and the country and that relationship. So, yeah, I think that was my reaction to the. 

Cortney Wills [00:04:38] And you watched the film in mixed company, I would imagine, if you’re in a theater. 

Michael Harriot [00:04:42] Yeah, it was mostly Black, but it it was in mixed company. You know, one of the interesting things that we know about film in and world is that white audiences really don’t consume Black media, whether it’s TV or film, unless they hear about it from another white person who gives it good reviews. So, you know, even if it is a big, quote unquote, mainstream release, there probably won’t be like a half and half audience, if at all. 

Cortney Wills [00:05:19] Right. And you know, what’s interesting about that is for me, you know, I grapple with coming to stories like this with a certain knowledge and a certain expectation of trauma and of experiencing a trauma that I know is coming and a trauma that I’m used to experiencing and then doing that in front of white people. When I’m in films like 12 Years a Slave or I’m in films like this, I find myself like looking around at their reactions or almost. Feeling the need to like taper my reactions in front of them. And when I saw this film at home, I, I was instantly relieved that I was alone and that I could sit with my own reaction and my own emotions around what was happening on the screen without that kind of white gaze upon me. But I also wonder, you know, I would love to be a fly on the wall when when there is a roomful of white people watching a story like this. And I don’t know what it is that I would be looking for. Like, are they horrified enough or are they identifying with the same moments and the same intricacies that I am because I have come to this film, you know, not only as a Black person, not only as a Black woman, but as a Black mother. And there’s no way for me to separate those things when I’m watching a mother grieve her son or even before we get to his lynching. When I’m watching a mother love her son. You know, there’s a certain recognition there that I just wonder if other audiences are able to tap into on a film that I think is probably the most important for them to see. 

Michael Harriot [00:07:11] Yeah. Yeah. That’s an interesting question because, you know, so there’s two a couple of things that are kind of intertwined in that. First of all, you have to understand that it’s a self-selecting audience. You know, if the white people who pay money go to a theater to watch this film, it’s not like a lot and a swath of the white population. Right. It’s probably people who already know about the Emmett Till story as probably people who are probably more sympathetic to these kinds of situations. And, you know, like I said earlier, it’s white people who are willing to watch a film that is mostly starring Black people. So, you know, when you talk about the film and the trauma and whether they understand it, you know, we’re not talking about white people. We’re talking about white people who go to see an Emmett Till film. And the other thing is that there’s this interesting study by, I think, the University of Toronto, and it’s from a couple of years ago. Right. And what they did is they took video of Black people, white people, you know, people of different races, just performing tasks on camera. And then they showed them to white people. And it was interesting that when a Black person performing a task on film or video and the white people watched it, they had the same reaction. And what they did is they scanned the brains of the people who were participating in the study. And the brains showed the same reactions as if they were watching a blank film when Black people were performing a task. 

Cortney Wills [00:09:04] Yes. 

Michael Harriot [00:09:08] So what that’s called among neuroscientists is called the empathy gap. And, you know, it’s not really a phenomenon that we see at other races. It is like almost exclusive to white people. So, you know, those two things combined, you know, make it an interesting question whether white people will be as sympathetic and knowing that it is a self-selecting group of white people who are going to watch this film. The answer is we don’t know. I would suggest that, you know, with most Americans, especially white people, really just know the broad swath, the broad dynamics of the Emmett Till story and don’t know the story of Mamie Till. It don’t know the story of, you know, of of money, Mississippi or where this happened or, you know, the reaction to it. They kind of just know, you know, Emmett Till was killed and then, you know, the people were found not guilty. 

Cortney Wills [00:10:11] And there is so much more to that story. I mean, not only were they found not guilty, they shortly after admitted to the crime and then. We’re not prosecuted, never served time. The men who did this, that that was a mob of white men that also included a few Black faces, which I didn’t know that that was something that I learned in this film. I don’t know if we need to fact check that to see if that was historically accurate. But in the film, this murder is carried out by a group of white men, and they had some help from some Black dudes. And that was terribly disturbing. Not so shocking, but just, I think hard to to to see on the screen. But these guys, you know, it’s not like we think they did it. They admitted in a magazine to this crime and were never punished. Beyond that, the white woman who started all of this, who claimed that he, you know, whistled at her and and got him cried white tears and got him killed. She is still alive and well to this day. I feel like a couple of months ago, Michael, you probably know better than I do. There was some kind of like something uncovered, like maybe an arrest warrant that was never served for her. And people tried to rally behind. Prosecuting her for this false allegation that led to this child’s murder. And I think a grand jury decided not to indict. You know what I’m talking about. Is that right? 

Michael Harriot [00:11:49] Yes. Yeah. So, yeah, exactly what you said in the basement, I think of the courthouse, they found an old warrant that was never served for her. There was a cry to serve it and a grand jury declined, which, you know, in a case like that, it’s hard for a jury or a prosecutor to get a conviction. And, you know, but ultimately, a prosecutor doesn’t really have to have a grand jury. A prosecutor can make the decision on his own. I think because of the heightened awareness and the publicity around this case, that they decided to go with a grand jury. And, you know, as far as the Black people who were involved, we know that is true. Wait. So, you know, the story behind that is, like much of what we know about what happened that night was because Black journalists went to many Mississippi. Before the trial and investigated. And, you know, it’s an interesting story because they they went to an all Black town that was, you know, really kind of on the outposts. And there was a Black businessman, a surgeon, Tim Howard, who basically, like, ran this part of Mississippi and protected these Black journalists. He had basically his own army. And so these journalists were able to investigated that, to found out that more than the two people that were arrested and tried for this crime were involved and that it was a mob and that they used Black people to kind of get. Emmett Till on the back of that truck. And again, we know that because of Black journalists, because of Treme, Howard. And so that is not just speculation that is kind of historically accurate. 

Cortney Wills [00:14:07] Gosh. You know, the other thing that I was really struck by was. While Chukwu did not show the lynching itself. Like she didn’t have to for it to be traumatic, seeing his body afterward. And I’ve seen I’ve seen the Jet magazine photos of the real Emmett Till. I’ve also seen iterations of the story in other art forms. Even Lovecraft country visited this. They wove Emmett Till into their story. But it was still, I think, just as. Terrible to see these images of this boy’s body on screen. But what really struck me was basically when the defense tried to claim that, like, we don’t even know if this is Emmett, this could be anybody. You can’t even tell if his body is Black or white because it was so brutalized, it was so bloated and bleached out from being in the water that he was literally unrecognizable. And seeing the way that Mamie. Explained that she didn’t have to recognize him with her eyes. She could feel him like with her hands, like that description of knowing every single inch of your child’s body, bloated or not. Made it so, like, you know, like tender. Like, I’ve never thought of that, but same like I could. I could pick my daughter’s knee out of a sea of knees if I ever had to, and, like, God forbid, I ever had to. But. Getting down to that granular level of of love and knowing between a mother and son, I would think, like has to be universal, like has to transcend race and class and all of these things. Like I’m watching this movie like, yo, if you watch this and you are not moved, you are a zombie, like you are a monster. And then I think about what you said earlier about the empathy gap, and I realize. I might really be overshooting with my expectation like this. This is going to be the thing that gets them, you know? 

Michael Harriot [00:16:31] Yeah. Yeah, that’s. That’s it. It’s partly why these kinds of films exist way like, you know, it’s hard to go into a movie studio that is, you know, usually run by white executives and kind of propose this kind well, any kind of film that doesn’t include trauma, especially if it has a Black cast because, you know, because of that empathy gap. And so, you know, we get this debate online and, you know, in reality about whether. You know, why do all the Black films have to have so much trauma? And I often have to remind people know all of the Black films that you see who gets funding from white people that are able to be produced in Hollywood and put on a screen or screens nationwide. Those are the ones that include trauma because, you know, there has to be something that makes this film appealing to those white executives. When we talk about that empathy gap, we can’t forget that. You know, that empathy gap exists among white executives, you know, studio heads, people who are able to greenlight film and Black people know that. Right. And if you are a Black filmmaker and you want to get a film made, you know, sometimes you have to acknowledge and not resist that reality. Mm hmm. So. So, you know, I it is interesting to think about that as it relates to this film because. To get a film about Emmett Till made one. We all know the name. That probably helps. But also that because of that, because the crime was so egregious like it it kind of hopscotch is over so many of the other similar lynchings and crimes that existed during this time in the history of America, which, like we we default to Emmett Till to explain the horrific abuse that was prevalent in that time because it was so traumatic. And so one of the reasons that a film like this can be made is that, of course, you know, we kind of promoted Emmett Till or made him a story to explain all of the trauma. He is kind of the the the symbol of that Trump. 

Cortney Wills [00:19:29] Mm hmm. You know, I wonder where that puts us because I grapple with that as well. I mean, even a film like this that I think if you’re going to do a film like this, particularly in 2022. You know, I think they picked the right director to do it. I think she handled it with the utmost. Like care and respect and thoughtfulness that she could have. I think she was very conscious not to exploit the. Trauma of the act the way that I think other directors might have handled it. And I do think that, you know, I am I am of the camp that like, even though our stories are hard and our history hard to revisit. That’s not enough for me to say that we shouldn’t do it. I empathize and I relate to Black folks who say, like, I’m not watching one more slave film. I don’t need to see that. I already know the story. I understand that. But I don’t think that, you know, the ugliness of the truth is enough of a reason to keep it from from seeing the light of day. I think ultimately films like this being greenlit and being promoted, you know, being contenders for Oscars should be a good thing. 

Cortney Wills [00:20:57] But I do grapple with that idea of like running out and as a critic, telling our audience, telling Black folks, run out and see this, I don’t know that that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m like, I’m glad it exists. I think it’s very well done. I think a whole lot of white people should see this. And I think that Black folks who don’t know the story or who have who have the stomach to endure the trauma that inevitably occurs when you consume something like this. That is true. Go see it and go support it. But I still find myself grappling with like fully championing or encouraging Black folks to run out to the theater, because that to me is a is a bit of self-inflicted trauma in itself. But I wonder what you think about. You know, do you think there will be this this renewed like outcry to get this woman that’s still alive, to, you know, fess up to what she did or take responsibility either legally or even just. You know, even just in an interview like to apologize, do you think that this film or the public’s potential reaction to this film will renew that and turn any results there? So in a manner even. Yes. 

Michael Harriot [00:22:23] So one that’s the question. Would it matter would it matter if there is more public outcry? I don’t know that it would. You know, almost every avenue has been exhausted. There was a renewed effort about three years ago to, you know, explore the case by the Department of Justice. There is, you know, that recent incident that we talk about where they find the expired or the the hidden warrant. And does that matter? You know, what does that matter? Like, if if we put this, you know, old woman in jail, we does it does it make her pay for the crime? Does it, you know, add any closure to the case? You know, I, I often say, like when you think about, you know, Caleb Carolyn Bryant or Carolyn Bryant Dunham now. I often say, like, if I was allowed to commit any crime that I was, I wanted to, whether it’s robbing a bank or murder. And you told me, hey, you don’t have to pay for it now, and you can live your life as if it never happened. And then maybe at the end of your life you have to pay for it. I think a lot of people would take that deal. Right. So, you know, even if she’s incarcerated now, to me, that ain’t justice. It is just assuaging the the bloodlust of people who are angered by white people’s bloodlust. It doesn’t give any closer to the family. It doesn’t give Black people injustice. It doesn’t bring Emmett Till back from the dead. And the other thing is when you think about, you know, talking about what you said, like, is it important to see or you say, like, I don’t know why I would recommend. Disown to any woman, white people or Black people. Not that I don’t like it or think that it shouldn’t exist. I think if you want to see a film about a historic event, you should see that. . 

Michael Harriot [00:24:58] I think if you want to see a film about a historic event, you should see that. I also think if you want to know the history or if I’m recommending something about Emmett Till to someone who doesn’t know about Emmett Till, you know, there are books you can read. There’s the journalism of the people who covered the trial. There’s you know, there’s enough that exists in in the literature of popular culture to not have to see this film, to understand or to empathize or to know about what happened to Emmett Till. And it really still only gives part of the story. So it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend the film to someone who asked me, was the film good or was the film bad? I would say that it is a good film, but it’s not a necessary film to understand this story. It’s not a necessary film to understand the history of that era or what happened to Black people or lynching. You know, to take the most traumatic event and make it emblematic of anything I think misses the story. I think, you know, if you want some people to understand what happened, you put Emmett Till in the context of all the people who will listed like how how regular and ordinary Emmett Till’s lynching was. That’s what makes it incredibly informative. And so, you know, those are the things that you grapple with when you talk about a film or a project like that. And then you have to realize, again, that people aren’t making or trying to make films that capitalize on Black drama. People are trying to make films about Black people, and the ones that we get to see in theaters are the ones that white people deem necessary because they can only empathize with Black people when there is such outrageous and in in in hyperbolic trauma that makes them empathize. 

Cortney Wills [00:27:24] Yeah. And, you know, you made me think about the fact that. If I’m really, really honest about what what I hope these films do and who I hope they speak to. The reality is the people that I hope that they speak to would never see this film anyway. Like the people who need Emmett or his mother to be humanized down to that core. Like I said, that any any parent could could feel what she meant when she said, you know, I know every inch of my kid’s body. The white people who need. It to be proven that we are that human to care or to understand the rage or the hurt or the decades of pain. Like those people would never see this movie, and even if they did, it likely would not be enough to convince them like they would call it a fluke. Okay. Yeah, that one was bad. That was out of line, you know, that they would really, you know, as a as a populist would not be the ones to see this movie. I am so grateful for your perspective on this. And I think that point you made about, you know, if you really want to know about Emmett Till and what happened and all of the other people that it happened to. There are a lot of other places to get. That information is a very true and very important. I do think that one highlight and benefit of this story is that even people like you said earlier who know what happened to Emmett Till don’t necessarily know why they know what happened to Emmett Till. And that has a lot to do with his mother and what she did and the fact that in her grief. Instead of relegating herself solely as a victim, she created a path to become a hero in some ways, you know, putting your your child out there to the world like that had to be so painful. 

Cortney Wills [00:29:33] But she knew exactly why she was doing it. And she knew that she didn’t want her son, like so many other Black boys, to to to be a race and and, you know, relegated to oblivion and to just another name. And I think that that attempt by Chukwu and the filmmakers and Danielle Deadwyler, who did an amazing job portraying Mamie Till-Mobley, is commendable. And I think that, you know, we have so few opportunities to highlight real Black women in the movement and real Black women who made an impact on the world and on our communities if they weren’t by dancing and singing on a stage or, you know, winning awards like this was a human who had a terrible act of violence inflicted on her family and refused to go quietly into the night. And for that reason, you know, I hope more people learn to learn her name as well as Emmett Till’s. 

Michael Harriot [00:30:36] Yeah. Yeah, that I think that is if, you know, we take away anything from this movie, that is what we take away. Her courage, her bravery, her you know, not just her her trauma, but like what she did in the aftermath to, you know, historians kind of date the beginning of what we call the civil rights movement or what, you know, we know as the civil rights movement to Emmett Till’s death and, you know, the national outrage of it. And that was largely because of of maybe Till’s efforts. And it’s not just the efforts to tell people to see what they did to my son, but she went, you know, around the country. She raised money for people like Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists who, you know, helped us gain voting rights in the Civil Rights Act. And, you know, those are the things that Mamie Till gave us out of her son’s, you know, traumatic death. 

Cortney Wills [00:31:47] Yes. Last thing I wonder, and particularly because, you know, I. I know that you are the penultimate white apologist watching a film like this makes you really, really mad sometimes as a Black person. And some Black folks don’t always confront or accept those emotions until they’re watching something like this. And it’s just kind of fueled or ignited like God, like it really is. That’s fucking bad. And so I wonder for you if you have any insight or even advice for Black folks who find themselves in the theater, not only hurting, but I mean stewing like the next white person I see, I’m going to smack in the face because of the emotions that these stories inevitably stir up. 

Michael Harriot [00:32:41] You know? So I think if I don’t know if I have any advice, but I think that when, you know, even you know the phrase I hate all white people or are all white people, you have to put that. In context of not just race relations, but the world and how we navigate it in general. Right. People aren’t able to do what those men did to Emmett Till. Not because all the white people. Hated Black people, but because all the white people didn’t do anything right. Like so. And when you expand that to any kind of justice or any kind of social movement, the reality is that it is incumbent upon all of us to not be like those white people who empower those lynch lynch jurors in the people in that lynch mob by simply doing nothing, by not being. And, you know, it’s the people on the jury, the people who pronounced him innocent, the fact that there could be an all white jury, the fact that people the white all the white people weren’t outraged to enough to go let the person who was in that lynch mob. Right. Like that is what creates the situation where people can act with out any accountability because they know the mass majority of people are inactive, they are complicit. And we can’t allow ourselves to become those kinds of complacent people. Not just because of of Black people and not just for Black people, a little Black boys in Mississippi. But that is the kind of society that we want to live in, where people can’t get away with doing things to other people and having no accountability, whether it’s police brutality or lynching or, you know, educational inequality or the criminal justice system. The inaction is why that exists. So it’s so. So in a sense, finally, it’s good. To feel that way and to feel like you don’t have to suppress those emotions when you see stuff like that happen. You should be filled with anger and hatred, but not for white people, just for the inaction. 

Cortney Wills [00:35:30] Well said. Thank you so much, Michael. I really appreciate your time and your insight today. It’s been great having you as a guest on acting up. 

Michael Harriot [00:35:38] Thank you for having me. 

Cortney Wills [00:35:43] Things were tuning into this week’s episode of Acting Up. Download theGrio app to listen to acting up and other great podcasts. See you soon. 

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