‘I don’t worry about awards. It is a bigger thing to combat racism, right?’

The Harder They Fall star Danielle Deadwyler on her extraordinary performance as Mamie Till-Mobley in Till

Nobody forgets seeing photographs of Emmett Till for the first time.

Till was a young African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His death was a catalyst for the civil rights movement in the United States. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1941, he lived beyond the reach of the South’s more extensive Jim Crow laws.

In 1955, aged 14, Till was visiting his relatives in Mississippi when he was accused of flirting with a white woman in a store.

A few days later, he was abducted from his relatives’ home by a group of white men, beaten, and shot. Till’s body was wrapped in a barbed wire attached to a fan and thrown in the Tallahatchie River.


The body was found a few days later. He had been tortured and murdered. The men who killed Emmett Till were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury, despite overwhelming evidence against them.

Protected against double jeopardy, the two men – W Milam and Roy Bryant – publicly admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they had tortured and murdered the boy, selling the story of how they did it for $4,000.

Carolyn Bryant Donham, who accused Till of lewd remarks, has never stood trial for her part in his lynching.

This injustice, and the horrific nature of the murder, outraged many people and helped to galvanise the civil rights movement. Emmett Till’s death became a symbol of the racial violence and inequality prevalent in the United States at the time, and his case helped inspire the civil rights movement and the fight for racial equality.

“I learned about it in school,” recalls Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Emmett’s mother in Till, a new film from director Chinonye Chukwu. “And then, as a person who has come from Atlanta, which has a civil rights legacy, I grew up volunteering at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All of these historical stories are very much a part of my psyche. They’re part of my daily life. My mum put me in a position to learn and build on these things in a certain artistic and academic sense. That’s what this film gives us. An opportunity to have a richer conversation about who these people were.”

In 1955, when Mamie Till-Mobley heard the news that her only child had been brutalised and killed, she insisted that authorities send his body home to Chicago. Emmett Till’s body had to be identified by the ring he was wearing. His teeth were missing and an eye hung from its socket; his ear was cut off. She collapsed as she collected the body at the train station.

Till-Mobley insisted that the casket containing her son’s body was left open. She invited photographers from African-American publications, including the Chicago Defender, Jet and Ebony. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said.

“We get this image that is terrorising in itself,” says Deadwyler. “That’s it. But that’s not the whole story. That black-and-white image is not him. He’s bigger than that. She’s bigger than that. Her brilliance in dealing with the media; the in-depth nature of the love and joy between her and her son. They were a loving family, and it’s just as critical to look at that because that’s what we’re fighting for. Her coming to activism. We have the opportunity to put colour and life into every step of the way of her. Black women have been integral to the civil rights movement and we don’t always hear their stories. This is the person who impacted Dr King, Rosa Parks, and James Baldwin. So many people were influenced by her actions. She gives us a critical perspective on black womanhood.”

Till wisely eschews the violence perpetrated against the young teenager in favour of Mamie’s perspective. As the film opens, the cheery Emmett (Jalyn Hall) is Mississippi-bound, on a trip encouraged by Mamie’s mother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), who wants the boy to know his Deep South relatives. Mamie cautions that her son must contend with a “different set of rules for negroes down there”. Even the train journey from Chicago to Mississippi requires that black passengers must move to the back of the train, as they cross into states dominated by cotton and sharecropping.

We had therapists on set to support everybody. We needed that support and cradling at that most challenging time

—  Danielle Deadwyler

When the irrepressible Emmett incautiously compares a local shopkeeper to a movie star, she charges at him and other black customers with a gun. That, alas, is not the end of the matter.

The always impeccably dressed Mamie appeals to the press when her son goes missing, and again when his body is returned. Deadwyler’s reenactments of Mamie’s grief are as extraordinary as they are moving. The actor has subsequently embarked on a series of post-traumatic treatments, including acupuncture, chiropractic, and journaling.

“We had already had a challenging day, which was the train scene and that was a significant day because that was the day I became aware that we’re all in this together and we’re all going to endure it together in the same way that Mamie wanted the world to witness together,” recalls Deadwyler. “On the day of the funeral scene, everybody came with the weight of that knowledge. It was a very quiet day. It had been raining, and we were filming in this house, on the east side of Atlanta, before we moved to the funeral parlour. The entire camera crew department wore white button-down shirts. I didn’t shield myself. I’m always out and open. We had therapists on set to support everybody. We needed that support and cradling at that most challenging time.”

Martyn Turner Cartoon

At the recent Los Angeles premiere, Deborah Watts, cousin of Emmett Till and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was joined by civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of Medgar Evers. It’s a red-carpet meeting that ought to be characterised as a historical moment. And yet, Emmett Till’s horrific fate remains terrifyingly relevant in contemporary America. In 2019, a fourth replacement of the Emmett Till Memorial was installed, weighing 500 pounds and made of bulletproof steel, after the monument was repeatedly vandalised and destroyed. Last year, the memorial went missing in the days following the 66th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death. Mamie died in 2003, two decades before President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into effect on March 29th of this year.

And racism is seedy, it’s systemic. I have no doubt been impacted by it

—  Danielle Deadwyler

“Myrlie Evans was at the Los Angeles film premiere and she said a lot of things haven’t changed,” says Deadwyler. “And it’s true. We’ve witnessed black people, men and women, trans, and queer, all kinds of folks dying at the hands of authority figures and at the hands of white supremacists. I think about the shootings in Buffalo. It was a conversation I had to have with my own son because he was walking daily to school. I’m his mother. So this is a critical dialogue on a day-to-day basis. We’re looking at a critical political history of the social and cultural practice of lynching and murder of black folks. We have to interrogate all of that.”

Aged 40, Danielle Deadwyler is having a moment. A multidisciplinary performance artist, actor and filmmaker, whose work explores “...how lines are blurred in the labour of black women, especially domestic and sexual work, and the impacts on the black body”, she enjoys a parallel career in television, where she has featured on Watchmen, Atlanta, FBI: Most Wanted, and Tyler Perry’s The Haves & The Have Nots.

Playing Cathay “Cuffee” Williams, a black frontierswoman who served as a Buffalo Soldier disguised as a man, in Netflix’s all-black Western The Harder They Fall, she stole scenes from under the noses of better-known co-stars Regina King and Idris Elba.

In the post-apocalyptic pandemic drama Station Eleven, she plays the wife of Gael Garcia Bernal and the author of the prophetic graphic novel that shares its title with the HBO series. Deadwyler’s powerhouse performance at the centre of Till is a hot tip for an Academy Award, lagging just behind Cate Blanchett with the bookies. Deadwyler is far more focused on the film’s potential social impact.

“I don’t worry about awards,” she says. “It is a bigger thing to combat racism, right? And racism is seedy, it’s systemic. I have no doubt been impacted by it. I’ve had weird occurrences in dealing with the police as a youth in college. I witnessed my brothers have to deal with racism. I’ve witnessed my father have to deal with it; my peers, my homeboys, my homegirls; it’s just a part of my world. Awards? It’s all good. We got bigger fish to fry.”

Till opens on January 6th