Students took home posters by artist Miles Regis during a special screening of Chinonye Chukwu’s Till. (photo by Mettie Ostrowski)

Over a thousand students from schools across Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens poured into Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts for a special community screening of Till yesterday, October 3.

Students chattered and made jokes as they filed in with their classmates and educators, making for an unusually rowdy crowd for a New York Film Festival audience. They clapped in time to a song that played in the opening scene of the movie, wearing Emmett’s (Jalyn Hall) same wide-eyed smile. And they stirred in their seats when a scene from the film depicted two White men storming the cabin that Emmett Till was staying in on vacation with relatives in the Mississippi Delta region, reacting vocally to their abhorrent use of the n-word. But everyone in the sizable hall quieted when it became clear that the men were intent on inflicting unspeakable violence on the 14-year-old boy, and watched with charged silence as a barn sheltered sounds of screams. Mayor Eric Adams delivered a short speech introducing the screening, referencing his own arrest and beating by police officers at the age of 15.

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The student screening of Till, which followed a teacher showing on Sunday, emphasizes an important aim of the new film, set for wide release on October 14: to educate young people about the fierce love and activism of Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, which played no small part in igniting the Civil Rights Movement. The film, rated PG-13, also raises difficult questions about the representation of Till’s lynching and maimed body on screen, which elicited audible gasps and shock from the young audience.

The film follows the story of Emmett Till, from tender scenes of his domestic life in Chicago in the early 1950s to his brutal murder in Money, Mississippi. There, Emmett stops by a store to pick up some candy and compliments the clerk, Carolyn Bryant, whistling at her on his way out. Incensed, she follows him with a gun. Days later, he is kidnapped and beaten; the actual violence is only alluded to and not directly shown. As soon as Mamie is notified about Emmett’s disappearance, she begins collaborating with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), first to locate him and then to fight for the conviction of Emmett’s tormentors. The film portrays Mamie’s transformation from a mother only strictly interested in obtaining justice for her son into a defender of racial equality for all.

Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley and Whoopi Goldberg as Alma Carthan in Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, released by Orion Pictures (© 2022 ORION PICTURES RELEASING LLC; photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon)

In one scene, Mamie, to the initial incomprehension of her partner Gene Mobley, decides to stage a somber family portrait with Emmett’s disfigured corpse, the historic photograph that would be published in Jet magazine. In another scene, Mamie gives a rousing speech in Harlem about the importance of fighting for social justice. Students in the audience applauded along with those gathered for the speech in the film to celebrate Mamie’s words.

Dr. Stephanie James Harris and Kahlil Greene moderated a Q&A panel after the screening. When they asked the audience how many people got emotional watching Till, most students raised their hands. 

“There’s so much about this story that people across ages and generations do not know,” director Chinonye Chukwu said during the panel. She urged students in the audience to familiarize themselves with their voting rights and to register as soon as they can. “There’s a history of people who have really fought for your right to vote, and it’s important that that work doesn’t go in vain.”

After the screening, many students left still grappling with the movie’s themes. Some were overheard discussing why it took until March of this year for Congress to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime. Others wondered aloud about Carolyn Bryant’s testimony, and argued that her own violent reaction in resorting to brandishing a gun was unjustified. One student expressed anger that Bryant had not been prosecuted for her deceptions and the part they played in Emmett Till’s death.

Moderators, the director, actors, and the co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation joined the stage to discuss the film after the screening. (photo Jasmine Liu/Hyperallergic)

Artistic representations of Emmett Till’s deceased body have in the past sparked controversy, notably when the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz was showcased in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Some demanded the removal of the artwork, an abstract rendition of Till’s face in his coffin, arguing that a White artist was sensationalizing a horrific event and exploiting his image for her own gain. Notable during Monday’s screening was the presence of the Black actors, artists, moderators, and filmmakers, each contributing in some way to telling Mamie’s story — including Mamie’s cousin Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.

“Your faces bring that hope, and that joy, and that love that my hero, my cousin, Mamie Till-Mobley … poured into the lives of young people, to inspire you,” Watts lovingly addressed the students.

Miles Regis, “A Mother Knows (Tribute to Mamie)” (photo Jasmine Liu/Hyperallergic)

Each student took home a poster designed by artist Miles Regis specially designed for the community screening event. Titled “A Mother Knows (Tribute to Mamie),” it shows Mamie Till-Mobley’s silhouette in profile, surrounded by phrases like “he was my only child” and “it was more than two men with a gun.” “I wanted to honor the love bond between Mamie and Emmett,” Regis told Hyperallergic. He explained that the film felt particularly personal to him as the father of two children.

Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Mamie Mobley-Till in the movie, told the audience: “[Mamie Mobley-Till] knew she didn’t want to be a nobody anymore — and she continued to be a somebody in an extraordinary way, through her activism, by her engagement with students, by being a community educator, by advocating for students in the arts, and by establishing the Emmett Till Players,” a group that memorized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and toured the country performing them.

“This is a story about a person going from ordinary to extraordinary,” Deadwyler said.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.