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‘We can never forget’: Till movie sparks renewed conversations about the nation’s racist past

Emmett Till’s tragic death in 1955 is a reminder of the “depths of ugliness” that still exists, said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor at Princeton.
Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Mobley in "Till".
Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Mobley in "Till". Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pictures

With the release of director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” the conversation of the nation’s racist history and violence toward Black people is being revisited. The film retells the tragic story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally abducted, beaten and killed by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, in 1955. Told through the perspective of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, played by actress Danielle Deadwyler, the film shows how Till’s death became a symbol of Black injustice that helped sparked the civil rights movement.

Deadwyler told NBC News that the telling of Till’s story today is just as important as it was decades ago

“We know that the ramifications of violence are still being enacted on Black folks,” she said. “We know that the institutions are still — and private citizens — are trying to do those same things. And we also know that folks don’t want the history to be told. So it’s important to constantly have a conversation about the truth of these experiences, not just like a glossing over of the historical aspect, but getting to the real deep, really rooted, intimate nature of what it meant to be Black folks going through this at this time. And that’s what this film is.” 

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., department chair of African American studies at Princeton University, said that  “Till” serves as a reminder of the “depths of ugliness” that the Black community continues to experience. On Monday, Glaude moderated a Q&A discussion with “Till” producer, Keith A. Beauchamp, where they discussed the importance of the film and its relevance.

“In the United States, we tend to think of our history in romantic terms,” Glaude told NBC News. “To confront the ugliness of a child being lynched, and to know that the reasons for that violent act, were based on a lie, is really important to remember. Because it reminds us of how monstrous we can be — how monstrous we have been.”

Emmett Louis Till and Mamie Till-Mobley at their home in Chicago.
Emmett Louis Till and Mamie Till-Mobley at their home in Chicago. Chicago Tribune / TNS via Getty Images

Till-Mobley became a critical figure in the civil rights movement following her son’s death. She held a public open-casket funeral in Chicago, which put her son’s mutilated body on display. She also allowed Jet magazine to circulate images of Till, sending horrified shockwaves across the nation. Glaude says the film helped to show the immense fear and concern that Black mothers faced in the South when raising their children amid racism and injustice. Deadwyler agreed, adding that, like Mamie, she knows the concern a mother has because she, too, is the mother of a young teenage boy. 

“Mamie was the quintessential mother in that she wanted him to be his greatest, best self,” she said, noting that in Mamie’s final conversation with her son before he went to Mississippi she told him “to be small.” Deadwyler said that was her attempt to both “protect and love him.” 

“I know that conversation because I’m a mother of a 13-year-old,” she continued. “I have to talk to him about what it means to be moving through the world autonomously, what it means for him to be moving through the world with all of his friends of various ethnic backgrounds and the potential of what it means for him to be with them and to be possibly singled out. How do we deal with that? How should he deal with that?”

Nearly seventy years after Till’s death, there has been little to no justice served for the 14-year-old’s murder. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the two white men who kidnapped and killed Till, were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Both men, who have since died, admitted to committing the crime to a journalist in 1956, but were never recharged. In April, Till’s family called for Donham’s prosecution after a team discovered an unserved kidnapping warrant against her. A few months later, in August, a grand jury decided not to indict Donham, who is 88 and lives in Kentucky, deciding there was not enough evidence. It is unlikely that she will ever be charged.

Yet, there have been some initiatives put in place to honor his legacy. The Senate passed a bill in January posthumously awarding Till and his mother the Congressional Gold Medal. President Joe Biden also signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in March, making lynching a federal hate crime with penalties resulting in a fine, a 30-year prison sentence, or both. A community in Greenwood, Mississippi, held a dedication ceremony this month for a new, 9-foot bronze statue of Till in Rail Spike Park, which county officials say was years in the making. A statue depicting Till-Mobley was also unveiled in Chicago on Friday.

But, Glaude said, even with these initiatives, without a racially just America, Till “died in vain.”

“We can never forget,” he added.