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The Upcoming Emmett Till Biopic Is Understandably Polarizing. But Does It Have to Be?

While some feel the forthcoming feature is yet another example of the exploitation of Black trauma and pain, others see it as a timely opportunity to educate.

By Shanelle Genai | The Root | July 26, 2022

On July 25, 1941, Emmett Till was born. This past Monday would have marked his 81st birthday.

I say “would have,” in the past tense, because by now, we all very well know that young Till didn’t make it past his 14th birthday due to his brutal and gruesome lynching that took place on August 28, 1955. In commemoration of his birthday, a new trailer for an upcoming biopic detailing Till’s life, death, and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s unfathomable resilience was released—and it was subsequently met with polarizing reactions.

Per a press release provided to The Root, Till is “a profoundly emotional and cinematic film about the true story of Mamie Till Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who, in 1955, was brutally lynched while visiting his cousins in Mississippi. In Mamie’s poignant journey of grief turned to action, we see the universal power of a mother’s ability to change the world.”

But despite the narrative framing reportedly being told from the perspective of Till’s mother, some online were quick to dismiss the film as yet another example of “Black trauma porn.” And who could blame them? Given Hollywood’s affinity for rewarding movies and TV shows that center the stories of disenfranchised Black folks and their plights—as opposed to stories of our successes—the reactionary impulse to automatically repel a film like this is understandable. This real-life story has been etched in our collective cultural conscience seemingly since the time Black kids were old enough to really comprehend it, so it begs the question of why, if at all, a story as heart-wrenching as this one needs to be relived on the big screen when images of Till’s mutilated body were already put on nationwide display many years ago.

On the other hand, you had folks who felt the film is a timely opportunity to educate folks on the horrifying realities of racism given the current climate and agenda of educational erasure being pushed by certain politicians. And while I, personally, feel there’s merit to both sides, what I think we should try to come to terms with when it comes to projects like this is the intent behind it—and how and what we, as a culture, define as trauma.

In a recent Zoom conversation held last week ahead of the trailer’s release, Till director Chinoye Chukwu explained how there were two “non-negotiables” when it came to making this film. The first was that it had to center the humanity of Mamie Till-Mobley and her quest for justice for her son. The other was that the film would not show or depict the violence enacted on Till on the young boy playing him.

“I don’t want to traumatize or re-traumatize audiences or myself,” she explained, according to The Wrap. “We don’t need to see it to understand or get a sense of the horror that happened.” She later added that she would not have moved forward with this film if she did not have the family’s blessing to do so. (And before you ask, yes, she did get it.)

Her insistence on this story being shown and told empathically, as opposed to explicitly, speaks volumes about her and co-writer Keith Beauchamp’s motives for bringing this story to the big screen, and should at least be taken into consideration before casting judgment.

What should also be examined is how we, as Black folks, define trauma. The phrase has been tossed around over the last several years, almost to the point of devaluation, due to the subjective nature of its perception. Essentially, what may be viewed as traumatic for one person may not be viewed as such to another. So where do we draw the line? Is seeing Franklin Saint murder somebody who double-crossed him, and constantly rack up “bodies, bodies, bodies” in Snowfall, considered traumatic? Was seeing Will and his fresh-out-of-jail father come to blows at the end of Bel-Air traumatic for someone who could actually relate? Are any of the instances of murder, or somebody getting brutally beat up in Power or any of its spinoffs, considered traumatic? What about the consistently heavy and emotional storylines in This Is Us? Or the sometimes stomach-turning depictions of physical trauma displayed on a variety of medical drama shows?

If we, as a culture, are truly tired of seeing Black pain be exploited for entertainment purposes, what does it say for several of the aforementioned shows to have such stellar ratings?

Now, before you come for me, just know that I don’t have any issues with those shows or others like it. But for those who feel like they want to see some art that centers on something other than trauma, might I suggest shows like Abbott Elementary, Grand Crew, Sistas, Insecure, Rap Sh!t, Atlanta, The Wonder Years, Grown-ish, Queen Sugar, Harlem, Run the World, Southside, The Chi, The Ms. Pat Show, The Upshaws, Flatbush Misdemeanors, Bust Down, The Neighborhood, The Kings of Napa, Our Kind of People, and P-Valley. Or movies like NOPE, Rise, Little, The Harder They Fall, King Richard, Summer of Soul, Fatherhood, Space Jam: A New Legacy, B-Boy Blues, Passing, Coming 2 America, A Journal for Jordan, The Photograph, Sylvie’s Love, Really Love, One Night in Miami—need I go on?

Of course, whether or not you go see Till is entirely up to you. I just hope you at least give it a fighting chance before completely writing it off.

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