With the upcoming release of Till, based on the horrific death of Emmett Till in 1955, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu revealed that a therapist was on set to assist film participants with their mental health surrounding the emotional film.
The 37-year-old told EW that having a licensed mental health professional nearby was “really critical” to protect the team’s well-being.
“We had a therapist on set every day, so that was really critical. And before shooting, we definitely talked as a group with the therapist — just constantly checking in throughout the day,” Chukwu said.
The movie takes viewers through the events that followed the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mother, Mamie, launched a nationwide campaign revealing Till’s mutilated face to the world so he’d never be forgotten. Not only did her decision spark her own “emotional awakening” and “activist consciousness,” but it also became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
“My approach to making this film was that this was always a story about Mamie,” Chukwu said. “It’s her emotional journey, but it’s also her journey into having an activist consciousness. I never approached the writing or the directing of this film through the lens of: This is a story about the violence that happened to Emmett.”
Sure to be a tearjerker for movie-goers, Chukwu wanted her staff and the dedicated actors to have the mental help they needed to get through production. She said she was especially concerned about the cognitive well-being of child actors on set and even declared mandatory one or two takes for extra sensitive scenes, refusing to put actors through unnecessary trauma to get a perfect shot.
“I’m very protective of the actors I work with, particularly when they’re children. So I was constantly reading energy and giving space and knowing that: All right, we only can do this in one take, or, We can only do this two times, that’s it. I would let the crew know that, no matter what happens, this is it. We’re not doing it again,” she said.
“Really letting people know and showing them that, at any point, whatever they need, we’ll provide emotionally and physically,” she added. “I think that was appreciated, and there was a lot of conversation. There were times when we just had to take a pause and just stop and recalibrate. I’m not trying to rush that at all, because wellbeing is critical.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Chukwu explained how she ran such an emotional production after many expressed contempt for another movie about African-American abuse, especially surrounding Till. Countless documentaries and films touched on the killing of the teen. Earlier this year, Hulu documented Mamie’s efforts in its Women of the Movement series. Let the World See was another doc by the streamer about the gruesome murder and the impact of his photographed open-casket funeral. But with Till, Chukwu vowed to tell the story in a way that would not involve showing the violence that the teen endured.
“I didn’t want to show what was physically done to Emmett. That is not the story,” the director explained. “I didn’t want to traumatize myself as a Black woman, and I didn’t want to traumatize audiences. Part of what incited such a global reaction to what happened to Emmett was that the world saw the aftermath of what happened. That is why I — and Mamie — chose to let the world see what happened to her son because it was important for the world to see the product of this kind of white supremacist system that we are living in. My decision to show that aftermath, to show the body, for a few seconds, is an extension of Mamie’s decision to have the world see what happened, which was part of what was so galvanizing [about her] activism.”
Chukwu hopes the empowering message will trump the death component when “Till” debuts in theaters on October 14th.