LOS ANGELES – When Whoopi Goldberg was invited to help produce an Emmett Till project, the actor thought she knew everything about the Black teenager’s 1955 kidnapping and lynching — until she learned the untold stories about how his mother handled the horrific aftermath.
After Goldberg dove deep into Till’s backstory, she and her production teammates Barbara Broccoli and Fred Zollo eagerly pitched movie ideas to several major studios. All eventually turned them down. It became discouraging at times, but after more than two decades of trying to get the project green lit, Hollywood finally took notice following George Floyd's death in 2020.
Goldberg said that's when MGM’s Orion Pictures stepped up to financially support the development of “Till,” which opens in theaters Friday and includes some of the behind-the-scenes details about Mamie Till-Mobley's monumental decision to expose the brutality of her son's death to educate people.
“People kind of hopped up and said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not okay with any of us,’” Goldberg recalled after the killing of Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes. She said Floyd’s death struck a chord throughout the U.S. the same way Till’s lynching created public uproar 60-plus years ago.
“Corporations started to pay attention,” said Goldberg, who added that she's been pushing a Till project for over 20 years - which was long enough for her to go from being a “young woman with a kid” to now a grandmother. "Orion said ’Listen, we do want to tell this story. We want to help you tell this story. We’ve been waiting a long time.”
Goldberg said several directors were interviewed, but they were easily won over by Chinonye Chukwu — who wanted to primarily focus her film on Till's mother. The new movie follows the true and untold story of Till-Mobley, whose decision to publicize her 14-year-old son’s brutal death for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement.
“Without Mamie, the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was, and she is the heartbeat of the story,” said the director, who called Till-Mobley a “warrior for justice” while she combatted racism, sexism and misogyny in wake of her son’s killing.
Chukwu said she had unconditional support from Goldberg, who said the director was an obvious fit.
“(Goldberg) constantly communicated her unwavering belief in my artistry and my abilities to be able to tell this story in a way that it needed to be told,” said Chukwu, who directed the 2019 drama “Clemency” starring Alfre Woodard. “That kind of support made me feel so seen as an artist, as a human being, and as a Black woman. I will never forget that kind of support.”
Chukwu co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp — a filmmaker best known for his extensive research behind Till’s abduction. His 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” played a major role in the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to reopen the Till investigation.
Beauchamp became friends with Till-Mobley, who was a mentor to him before she died in 2003. His work laid the foundation for Chukwu, who called Beauchamp a “treasure trove” of information and research in telling her cinematic story.
“It was incredible for myself to learn more about who she was as a person,” she said. “The many aspects of her life — with her girlfriends, with her man, with her church, at work, with her mother and a community of people who were so critical to her world. I learned so much about that. I knew audiences will learn a lot about that too along with the other people involved in the story.”
Chukwu felt the need to focus on Till-Mobley's emotional journey, but she wanted to also explore how Till's death impacted his other family members, like his young cousins who witnessed his kidnapping. She made an effort to recreate “real character driven moments” in two-person scenes.
“I just wanted to add more layers to the complexity of their relationships and the positions that they were in, in the story and in the world,” she said. “It was great to unpack that, those layers and emotional subtext with the actors as well.”
Danielle Deadwyler, who stars as Till-Mobley, applauded Chukwu's storytelling along with Beauchamp's ability to “access the truth.” She commended Goldberg and other producers for staying diligent.
“This is something Mamie wanted done since around 1955. It's about her seeking to tell this story," Deadwyler said. “The work that Chinoye and I did together in preparing through rigorous research of visual and academic, in just giving ourselves over to this grave task, that's what this experience has been and what we hope to share.”
Goldberg, who portrays Till's grandmother Alma Carthan, said she's open to the idea of exploring more films that deal with racial struggles.
“I will produce as many things as we can get made,” she said. “You know, Black people go in and out of popularity, so you got to hit while the iron is hot.”
Associated Press Writer John Carucci contributed to this report in New York.