Even as sad as Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing was, it’s a given that we can’t wait to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.  For many of us, the same can’t be said for Till, which carries a different weight of grief and pain. But, as history and the killings of George FloydTrayvon MartinBreonna Taylor and more have shown us, we can’t afford to not see Till as well. While revisiting this painful chapter of American history is understandably hard, we must realize that all our images have power, especially as a social justice tool. When EBONY’s sister publication JET published the photos of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till’s mutilated body, who was murdered while visiting family in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman, it inspired thousands of people to join the modern Civil Rights Movement. And that call to action shifted our world. 

Decades before mothers like this year’s EBONY Power 100 Social Justice Award honorees Tamika Palmer and Wanda Cooper-Jones, whose children Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed, stepped into the spotlight to demand justice for them, Mamie Till-Mobley led the way. Her love and courage for her son Emmett lights up Till. Her decision to have an open-casket to “let the world see” how her handsome son was brutally murdered and mutilated sowed the seeds of change. For over 20 years, producer and Till-Mobley mentee Keith Beauchamp has labored to bring Till to the big screen—not just to honor his beloved mentor but to once again issue a call for justice for Emmett.   

“I only produce films that are going to make an impact in some way. So filmmaking is my personal activism tool,” shares Beauchamp. Resurrecting interest in Emmett’s murder has been a person mission for the Baton Rouge, Louisiana native and Southern University alum. Back in 2004, his extensive research and advocacy got the FBI to reopen the case. A year later, when they closed the case, Beauchamp did not stop. Instead, his 2005 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, introduced a new generation to this tragic chapter. Because the Till family tragedy is far more than a page in a history book or a film, Beauchamp has continued to push for justice, particularly calling out Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman at the center of the horrific murder who continues to elude arrest.

“Nothing hits you more than a visual,” he explains. “It was because of that visual of Emmett Till that I came across at the age of 10 that inspired me [to be a filmmaker]. That's what made me realize [that I could] use the powerful medium of filmmaking to tell these stories . . . People have to see things to believe it,” he continues, “and film has always been that vehicle [for me] to show people.”

Fellow producer and EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg, who has been fighting alongside Beauchamp and others for over a decade to get Till made, also shares that deep commitment to social justice. “We wanted to make sure people never forgot this because we needed everybody to know these aren’t pictures in a magazine,” explains Goldberg who also stars as Emmett’s grandmother and Till-Mobley’s Alma Carthan. “These are real people, a mother and son, and a mother and mother.” 

Portraying Till-Mobley who is the film’s backbone fell on the shoulders of EBONY Power 100 Entertainment Powerhouse honoree Danielle Deadwyler, who can also be seen in Netflix’s limited series From Scratch alongside Zoe Saldana. In addition to reading Till-Mobley’s memoir Death of Innocence, scouring through extensive research, much of it from Till director Chinonye Chukwe, listening to Till-Mobley’s voice captured by a Chicago playwright and friend who knew her and speaking extensively with Beauchamp about Till-Mobley, the Spelman alum also credits her Atlanta upbringing for her riveting portrayal of Till-Mobley, which Goldberg praises as “magnificent.”

Because she “volunteered at SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] which Dr. King and Reverend Joseph Lowery started” with her siblings, went to “Cascade United Methodist, where Dr. Joseph Lowery was pastor” and also knew “a number of the women who worked at SCLC, who are unsung contributors to the Civil Rights Movement [and] were friends with Mamie Till,” Deadwyler, who is also the mother of a teenage son, says “that legacy from my own personal dynamic connected me too to Mamie.” 

That connection is something Chukwu and her cohorts noticed immediately. “Danielle blew me away,” she says of her audition. “When I cast actors, I tend to cast based on ‘Can they communicate a story with their eyes nonverbally? Can they hold a screen, can they command the screen?’ in addition to all the other work that they need to do, and she just checked all the boxes and blew everyone away.”

“By the time we were on set, she really channeled Mamie and had this inherent understanding of who Mamie was and what her journey was. And you really see that in the film. She channels Mamie in mind, body, and spirit,” marvels the Till director. 

“[T]he opportunity to tell this story through the emotional journey and point of view of Mamie,” is why Chukwu, who also directed the critically acclaimed 2019 film Clemency starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden who dutifully carries out executions, took on Till. “I thought that's a perspective a lot of people don't know, including myself at the time when I first signed on to make this film.”

“And she has so many layers of humanity and such an interesting, complex journey,” she explains further. “She's so critical to the modern Civil Rights Movement and considering how often Black women are erased from history, from the present, from the Civil Rights Movement, in terms of how we think about them, I thought all of that was a great opportunity to make this film.”

Sean Patrick Thomas, star of Save The Last DanceBarbershop and now the Hulu series Reasonable Doubt, cites the importance of the Till family’s story and Chukwu’s approach to it as the main reasons he joined the film as Mamie’s husband Gene Mobley. “I trusted her,” he says of Chukwu. “I felt like she had a passion for the story, and I felt like she understood the weight of the responsibility of what we were doing.”

Getting into Gene, he shares, challenged him because “there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there,” but fortunately Till producer Beauchamp was able to fill in the blanks not covered by Chukwu’s extensive reports and archival photos as well as Mamie’s autobiography Death of Innocence. What he admires about Gene is “the way he supported” Mamie and how “completely devoted” to her he was.

“After Emmett was killed, he was really the one that was there every step of the way . . . She was the rock for the world because she showed so much bravery in showing what happened to Emmett,” he explains, “but, when they were alone, and it was just Gene and Mamie, he was her rock.”

Playing Emmett has been eye-opening for EBONY Power 100 Generation Next honoree Jalyn Hall. “Living in that point of time, learning and taking all that information and experience in, it still lives in your mind, and I feel I've grown and learned more about myself and about love and about loving those close to you,” he reveals. 

It’s also given him a greater appreciation for his own freedom as well as that of his character Dillon on The CW’s hit teen drama All American. “I really wish that Emmett could have gone out into the world and changed it and been who he wanted to be,” he laments.

For Goldberg, who also played Myrlie Evers in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi spotlighting Evers’ decades-plus-long struggle to bring the man who murdered her husband and civil rights leader Medgar Evers to justice, movies can help combat the push to erase our nation’s history of systemic oppression, especially from school textbooks. “We’re going to make these movies and get this information out,” insists the popular View cohost. 

“It’s my hope that people will see [Till] and recognize themselves as family [through the] mother-son relationship, mother-daughter relationship," she shares. But like Beauchamp, she also wants them to realize that “this was the murder of a 14-year-old boy for no reason at all.”

“We saw what people went through with George Floyd . . .people were angry when they saw what happened to Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor,” she continues.

With Till, she believes they are making a statement that these murders are “what we don’t ever want to see again.”

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.