There’s a self-assured sincerity to Chinonye Chukwu’s cadence. It’s a trait also reflected in Chukwu’s films, despite the environments of strain and sterility she depicts in “Clemency” and “Till.” While suffering has foregrounded her projects, it’s the intricate humanity of character and performance that propels her films forward.
In the Nigerian-American filmmaker’s latest feature, “Till,” Chukwu shifts from the puncturing portrait of the prison industrial complex explored in “Clemency” to an event that is similarly resounding: The extrajudicial lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. It’s a tragedy best known for galvanizing the civil rights struggle, and its horror still resonates amid today’s ongoing reckoning with the prevalence of police violence and institutional racism.
“This is not a ‘period film,’ ” Chukwu said in an interview with The Daily Californian, her posture lax but her voice still pulsing. “This is a film that is very reflective of our present realities. Audiences will come away drawing clear lines between past and present.”
“Till” stars Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother and a woman on the precipice of activist consciousness following personal tragedy. The film charts the ever-present negotiation between internal ache and external obligation— the paradox one is left with when the personal and political are ever intertwined, as they have been for Black activists for centuries.
“Without Mamie Till-Mobley, the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was,” Chukwu said. “She is the center — the heartbeat — of this story.”
Chukwu makes a deliberate choice to decenter external depictions of brutality inflicted on Black bodies, instead focusing on the feelings, faces and specters that haunt one in the aftermath of trauma.
“I believe that where someone decides to place the camera . . . is a political decision,” Chukwu said. “Knowing that this was a story about Mamie’s journey, I knew there wasn’t a need to showcase the physical violence inflicted upon Black bodies. I also didn’t want to recreate it or see it as a human being or as a Black person, and it was a way for me to show care for audiences — to not put them through it.”
The relationship between sound and picture was central to composing a collage of subtextual emotional crescendos throughout “Till,” allowing Chukwu to show rather than tell. The juxtaposition of silence with sound orchestrates tactile affective states of stillness and strife alike.
“My amazing composer Abel (Korzeniowski) and I talked a lot about the score bringing out the emotional subtext as opposed to underscoring what we are visually seeing,” Chukwu said. “An example of that is when Mamie is looking at Emmett’s body in the funeral home. What we are seeing is this heartbreaking moment between a mother and her child, but there’s an underlying rage that’s building inside of her that leads to her making a crucial decision by the end of that scene. During the scene Abel’s music focuses on what’s bubbling inside of her and (the music) crescendos as that rage bubbles inside of her.”
Chukwu’s human-centered approach to film production carried over to her filmmaking process on set, too. Constructing the conditions for what she called “a real community of care” was paramount to her. On-set therapists tended to the cast and crew’s vacillating boundaries and sentiments in between takes. Chukwu also relinquished rigid directorial control to prioritize her cast’s wellness, limiting takes for certain scenes, such as when Mamie sees Emmett’s battered body for the first time, out of an authentic solicitude for her actors. A microcosm of the possibility of a collective spirit of compassion, the intimate collaboration undertaken by the cast and crew, even just for a moment, actualized the vision of solidarity and camaraderie the film presents.
“When we were shooting the scene where Emmett is abducted, after a take or two Jalyn (Hall) asked to pause so he could get a hug from his mom,” Chukwu said, describing how she created a space for actors to check in with themselves and others. “So I stopped everything . . . If Jalyn wasn’t able to continue in that moment, I would have stopped, and we would have gone with what we had shot already. We did a few more takes, but everyone knew on set that their well-being was prioritized.”
With “Till,” Chukwu transcends the confines of the biopic through her scrupulous shading of her characters, setting and sound, foregoing superficial bombast in favor of a quietude entrenched in substance. Her work is rooted in an ethos that recalls the likes of eminent filmmakers such as Sidney Lumet, who was renowned for his humanitarian directorial lens.
“I lead with humanity,” Chukwu said when asked about filmmakers who run sets on fear. “I’m humanity-forward in my approach to directing, but also in my approach to living, in my approach to life.”
Her admission was as lucid as it was earnest, as hopeful toward the future of filmmaking as it was rooted in tangibility. It evoked the best of “Till” — present in Chukwu’s resolution to close her film on a lilt of joy, uncovering tenderness even amid unending grief.