The horrifying and historical significant death of Emmett Till is being turned into a feature film. Writer and director, Chinonye Chukwu, will take on the task of tackling the complexity of Till’s death and the subsequent events of Till’s mother persistence of his open casket as well as how it helped spark the Civil Rights movement that followed. The Nigerian-American will work with the heralded Black comedienne, Whoopi Goldberg, who will serve as a cast member and producer on the project. The film is based on nearly thirty years of work of the award-winning researcher and documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp. He also co-wrote the script as well as holds a producer credit on the Orion Pictures project. After initial excitement about learning of a story that both terrified and inspired me, it seems that the consensus is that Black trauma is yet again a subject of a feature film that many are tired of revisiting.
For context, Emmett Till was a young teen-aged boy from Chicago who was savagely beaten and lynched by a white mob for supposedly whistling at a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. None of the men were ever held accountable as Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley purposely displayed Emmett’s grotesquely deformed face as a visual representation of hate, violence, and injustice many blacks faced including children. After the photos of Till’s funeral were displayed in JET Magazine, it was one of many sparks that led to the full force of the Civil Rights movement. Even today, those photos of Till’s swollen and hideously malformed face serve as a reminder of the egregious acts of violence and prejudice that many African Americans endured and in some cases continue to encounter.
From reading several comments made about the upcoming Till film, it seems the issue that some find with this story being told now is that they are just over black traumatic events that are typically the topics of black entertainment. Rarely are Black Americans shown in film or television in triumph roles that do not include musicians or themes around athletics. The few times they do occur these are the films that are held in high regard such as The Black Panther or Coming to America. During a time when people are spending much more time at home and are watching more television, the lust for hopeful content that highlights the great things about Black culture are sorely needed. There have been several scholarly studies and opinion pieces alike that have delved into the topic of black trauma on film. The central theme is that Black people have suffered enough in their daily lives to want to relive it as a form of entertainment. Many of us can recall feelings of intense anger or sadness after digesting something that displays black trauma and no one wants to repeatedly relive such taxing emotions.
Another point of view on the upcoming Till film is that it can serve as a teaching tool for a younger generation that may not necessarily be educated on the importance of what his story is, no matter how traumatic, sparked a critical movement. The planning, marching, and logistics of the Civil Rights Movement serves as a predecessor to subsequent movements that have followed nearly play by play what it was able to accomplish. In lamest terms, how can you know where you are going unless you know where you have been? It is certainly not an easy feat to stare fear or hatred in the eye but sometime pain is necessary. It is never pleasant but sometimes it is what is needed to achieve a common goal.
Representations do matter. They matter especially for the younger ones who may not be exposed to the goodness that comes from being born black. Some of them do not see the why there is such an emphasis on race to begin with despite their grandparents living and some contributing directly during the movement that made it possible for them to enjoy the freedoms they have today. It is certainly true that some of us are hypercritical of representations of the black diaspora and long for content that is joyous and uplifting. Like everything in life there is a fine balance of good and evil, love and hate, or light versus dark. This also applies to what content we expose ourselves to. The movie is backed by decades of research by a black man, produced and written by black people and will be co-written and directed by a black woman. That alone should provide a reason why we should support it despite the fact that it may make us uncomfortable. Hopefully they will hear the will of the people and choose to highlight stories that aren’t such heavy subjects.