Whenever a Black child is slain in America, the first person we see or hear from is their mother. "Mommie, Mama, Madea, Mom ... "—whatever you call the first woman to look into your eyes with unconditional love, this is a bond solidified for eternity. Nothing can sever the connection between a mother and her child, not even death. This is captured in Chinonye Chukwu's "Till," now playing across the country.
The story of Emmett Till is a haunting one that, at this very moment, is under threat of being erased from our history books because it is viewed as uncomfortable. The truth is that people need to hear the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother. Had it not been for her tenaciousness, strength, bravery and courage, her son’s memory would have evaporated into thin air. This was a mother who took every strand of her grief and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement laying the groundwork for future activists, Freedom Fighters, and the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a mother’s love that would garner international respect for battling racism, sexism, and misogyny while managing loss in the absence of love, grieving in the absence of joy, and comprehending the heart wrenching loss of a child.
It is Till-Mobley’s story in the United Artists/Orion Pictures feature film “Till” that has inspired a group of women and POC who are just as devoted and fearless just has Till-Mobley. Her story has been shared through the vision of director Chinonye Chukwu, studio head Alana Mayo, activist Keith Beauchamp, and Academy Award-winning producer Whoopi Goldberg, who fought Hollywood for ten years to get this story told. Till-Mobley’s sheer persistence represents the hundreds of phenomenal Black women throughout history who, while demanding justice, refused to shrink into the background, turning their untimely trauma into a never-ending fight for civil rights, equality, and human justice.
“God told me, 'I have taken one from you, but I will give you thousands,'” said Mamie Till-Mobley in her book Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. “I have left something of myself in all the children I have touched.” This creed is at the center of “Till.”
Horrified by the mutilation of her son’s body, Till-Mobley made the stunning decision to have over 50,000 people view Emmett’s corpse in Chicago, causing many to faint at the sight and smell of the body or having to leave in tears. She even chose to allow Jet Magazine and others to publish shocking photos from the open casket funeral, to ensure this gross, devilish deed is seared into American history.
Danielle Deadwyler plays Mamie Till-Mobley in “Till.” A mother herself, Deadwyler understood the immense responsibility on her shoulders and how she was telling more than one story. She says in the press notes for the film: "You don't get through anything like this without community. You just don't. And that's what happens when we lose anyone no matter if it is in a violent manner or of natural causes. We bring ourselves together."
Deadwyler continues, “What Mamie did may have been a political act, it may have been a personal act, and it was a mourning act. Because of what she was doing, because of what she endured, something extremely fresh and new began, laying a path for everyone to begin to walk on.”
The same could be said for the “Mothers of the Movement,” the mothers, daughters, and wives who have kept the memories of their loved one’s alive. These are women like Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of Medgar Evers; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lucy McBath, U.S. Representative for the state of Georgia and mother of Jordan Davis; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, mother of Hadiya Pendleton; Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland; Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice; and Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor.
Keith Beauchamp, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Till” alongside Chukwu, shared in the notes: “In light of all that has happened in recent years with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor, as well as George Floyd and many others that have happened since that time, there’s no other story that speaks to this generation and the political and racial climate than the story of Emmett Louis Till."
“His death continues to serve as a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. In fact, I often use this analogy for people to really get it, because I have been at fault in teaching this story in many ways. And over the years, now that I know the story a lot more, I like to use this analogy. And I don’t want to offend anyone, but this is the only way that I can get people to understand the importance of this story to us now: Emmett Till is the Anne Frank of Black America. His death continues to serve as a reminder of grave injustice as well as hope and change. It was a change that came from the death of Emmett Till, a change that we’re still longing for today.”
Like a child’s heart, a mother’s love is a precious commodity that cannot be bought or sold. And the pain of losing a child leaves a scar that must be seen by all. I think Myrlie Evers-Williams summed it up best when she said in a speech at the L.A. premiere of “Till”: “There is so much to be done. There is still a major job to be done in these United States of America, and, basically, it’s going to be left to all of us to do something about it. Don’t think that you can skip out, because if you do it’s going to catch up with you one way or another. In 1963, June 12th, my husband Medgar Evers was shot down at the doorstep of our home with our three children crying out, ‘Daddy! Get up, daddy! Get up!’ But daddy could not get up. But daddy had done his job ... he had done his job.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, like Mamie Till-Mobley, continues to do the work of ensuring that the grave injustices inflicted upon loved ones should never again darken the doorstep of another family or another child. It is truly with a mother’s love that one can transform a nation and inspire an entire movement for generations to come.