Last year should have been one big success story for Chinonye Chukwu. When she won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (the first Black woman in the festival’s history to do so) for her sophomore feature Clemency and reeled in a distribution deal from NEON soon after, she seemed poised to make a grand arrival. But the buzzed-about Oscar nomination for Alfre Woodard never materialized, and the scant press coverage often paired the glowing praise with laments about how low a public profile that excellent yet difficult film turned out to have.
But today brings cause for optimism in the news that Chukwu has laid the track for her next project, another look at the painful intersection of crime, punishment and race in America. Deadline reports that she will write and direct a drama about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and his mother’s subsequent crusade for justice, a significant chapter in the ongoing story of civil rights.
The 14-year-old Till was brutalized and murdered in Mississippi for daring to speak with a white woman at her family’s grocery store. (The record goes that he whistled at her, though details remain a matter of dispute between historians.) His mother Mamie Till Mobley shocked the nation by giving her son an open-casket funeral so that all could see what racism had wrought on him, a flashpoint that inspired such activist leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks.
As its factual foundation, the upcoming film has reams of original research from documentarian (and co-writer of the script) Keith Beauchamp, well-schooled in the material from his decades spent working with Mobley as well as Till’s cousin Simeon Wright. The film will follow Mobley as she went through the uphill battle of holding her son’s killers accountable in a time and place when authorities were all too eager to turn a blind eye to race-motivated crime.
This announcement comes at a time when Hollywood has been expelling a lot of hot air about diversifying pools of talent and vaunting the careers of women of color, historically the most marginalized demographic in the business. It’s good to see someone putting their money where their mouth is, even if those people are just producers Whoopi Goldberg and longtime Bond head Barbara Broccoli. The American cinema is a better, more interesting place for having Chukwu and her work in it.
Published 28 Aug 2020
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