As the long-anticipated biopic Till finally makes it's way to the UK, award winning producer Keith Beauchamp discusses the legacy of Emmett and Mamie Till, and their vital role in the American Civil Rights movement. A longtime inspiration for Beauchamp, the death of Emmett and his mother Mamie's subsequent force for change provide a powerful chance for new generations to awaken to the racism of the past and explore the ongoing legacy of America's most famous lynching.
Now a part of the history himself, Beauchamp sits down to discuss the decades long journey behind the film's creation, his hopes for audience responses and what he wishes he could say to Mamie and Emmett now.
You've been particularly focused on the story of Emmett for a while now. Is there a reason you keep coming back to it? And why does it need retelling now?
The reason for my being a filmmaker was because of the story of Emmett Till I learned about the story at the age of 10. I came across a magazine that had the story of Emmett Till. And of course, discovering that story, changed my life tremendously. It became a cautionary tale in my parent's household to teach me about the racism that still exists in the United States and abroad, but it wasn't until two weeks before my high school graduation where I had my role run in with racism. And that was when I was assaulted by an undercover police officer dancing with the white classmates. That's what spurred me into wanting to fight injustice.
So I began to study Criminal Justice at Southern University of Baton Rouge in hopes of becoming a civil rights attorney. But towards my junior year of college, I was introduced to filmmaking by my childhood friend who started a film production company with his sister in New York City. And I told my parents, look, I'm gonna set out a semester, and if things don't work out. I'll continue my education and go to law school as planned.
But of course, I'm here. It was at a company meeting I was asked if there was a story that I wanted to tell. And the story of Emmett Till came to mind. I ended up meeting Emmett Till's mother, and that was in early '95. I was very green. I was just coming into the industry. I didn't go to film school. I made an attempt to write a screenplay, which eventually was optioned off by producers who had worked with Showtime. I gained a three year option agreement and Mother Mobley encouraged me to produce a documentary, The Untold Story of Lewis Hill.
Out of our eight and a half year relationship, comes this nine year project of documentary, which eventually reopens the murder case in 2004. If I was ever given a chance to pursue the feature film again she wanted to make sure that I did it because she herself had made several attempts over the years which never happened.
So in 67 years, many have tried to produce a film about Emmett Till, and unfortunately failed. Until now. And so, it is a wonderful opportunity to be able to be involved with a case that I learned at such an early age, and to become a part of that history myself.
I'm still riding on this cloud nine, in many ways, but it was after the reopening of the Chilean case where I met Fred Zolo, who produced Mississippi Burning, and the great Barbara Broccoli. Close to 20 years now, just being this kid coming into my own as a filmmaker myself, and meeting these iconic people and having them believe in me enough to just join me on this journey has been an overwhelming experience.
That's what stood out for me, how film itself is now part of history, like it's the endpoint itself. The film reconstructs the identities of Mamie and Emmett to the point where they're not just faceless victims or grieving mothers anymore. He was just a boy and Mamie becomes this force for change that people don't necessarily know about. Why was that important in retelling their story? How do you hope audiences will react to that?
Well, I've always felt that Mother Mobley, the late Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. And I've always understood that the case of Emmett Till was never put in his proper context, in civil rights history. And that's unfortunate, because we're at a time where we're lucky and we're longing for a new movement of change.
But we don't necessarily understand how the civil rights movement actually started. It's because of Emmett Till's death that we see the likes of Rosa Parks, who was a great friend to Mother Mobley, who I had the opportunity to meet on this journey. You know, she would tell me that Emmett Till was foremost in her mind, that day she decided not to get up from her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 years old. He did not rise as a civil rights leader until he made a decision to take on the Montgomery bus boycott. And that decision was made out of the frustration and the pain at the death of Emmett Till, because [King] felt that the murder of Emmett was an intimidation factor to keep black people away from the voting polls.
And so all this is happening. When we hear about the civil rights movement, we go from Brown vs Board of Education, to the stories of Rosa Parks, of Dr. King, but it skips totally over the lynching of Emmett.
It is very important that we understand how impactful the story of Emmett Till was, how important it is to us now, because we're seeing today this carnage on the streets of America and abroad, of black and brown being killed, whether it's at the hands of those who are served to protect us, or at the hands of white supremacy. What you're seeing today is nothing different from what we saw back in 1955. This is one of those stories that has to be continuously told.
So that we can awaken the sleeping giant in us once again. And this is something that mother Mobley knew should happen.
The film puts a lot of effort into reconstructing those tragic images first seen after Emmett's death and encourages audiences today to experience that same shocked awakening that intially happened across the nation. Why was it important to reshare those harrowing images now?
The photograph of Emmett Till that I saw at the age of 10. That sparked my interest not just in the story but how I as an individual fight in the midst of all this race hatred.
This is a way of awakening that individual once again, because it was that photograph that inspired generations of folk to fight on the front line against racism and injustice.
I felt that if we can actually tell the story, a great number of people will walk away with those same feelings. I wanted it to resurrect my mentor, and I want people to experience the great woman.
Is there anything you wish you could tell Mamie or Emmett now?
I would want them to know that we have completed one half of the race. The second half is making sure that justice is truly won, in the Emmett Till legend, because, as you may know, there's still someone out there that could be charged for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, and we must not lose sight of that.
That was another reason why the film was being produced at this particular time and moment, because we want to make sure that justice prevails in this case, something that Mother Mobley wanted.
It's just been a huge experience for myself. I will remember this moment in time for the rest of my life, and I'm just living this dream.
Well I'm looking forward to seeing how the film is received and hopefully seeing some change come about, because I certainly felt changed by the film. So thank you very much for bringing it back to light.
I'm so happy that we're bringing it to the UK. This is not just an American story. The Emmett Till story, it was an international story.
And I hope that this would conjure up that same energy for change that we had back in the 1950s and 60s, not only in the States, but also across the globe. To awaken that sleeping giant within all of us once again.
Till is in cinemas on 6th January 2023.