One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 110
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
It’s been nearly seven decades since the murder of Emmett Till, and for years Whoopi Goldberg has wanted his story to be told in the form of a feature film.
On August 28, 1955, Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi by white men who believed he had flirted with a white woman in her family’s store several days earlier. Such an act would have been considered a shocking affront in the segregated American South of the Jim Crow era.
Following the acquittal of Till’s alleged murderers by an all-white jury, and their subsequent admission that they had indeed tortured and murdered the teen, Till became an icon in the civil rights movement that his murder in part sparked.
Till, the movie that Goldberg hoped to see made for years, arrived in theaters on October 14, with Whoopi herself serving as one of its producers and appearing in the film in the role of Alma Carthan, Emmett’s grandmother.
Directed and co-written by Nigerian-born, Alaskan-raised filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, Till looks at Emmett’s story from the perspective of his mother, Mamie Till (played by up-and-comer Danielle Deadwyler), who became an educator and activist in the civil rights movement following the murder of her son.
The film has been well-received by critics and as of this week has earned just under $9 million at the domestic box office, a respectable number for a specialized historical drama.
Whoopi Goldberg, an international celebrity who regularly finds herself in hot water due to her determination to speak her mind on all manner of issues, is clear-minded and firm when it comes to her feelings on the necessity of a film like Till and the subject of racism that is at its center.
“People say, ‘Everybody knows this story. Everybody doesn’t know this story. They said, ‘Nobody in Europe will see this.’ I said, ‘My movies are popular in Europe. Europeans see movies with black people in them,’” Goldberg proclaimed at Till’s premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 1. “When George Floyd’s story hit, they said, ‘We don’t like this.’ So we said, ‘Hey, we have a story for you.’ And we made it the way we wanted to make it.”
Till is far from the first race-themed project that Goldberg has gotten involved with—as both a producer and a performer—during her 30-plus years in Hollywood. She has appeared in films that shed light on racial injustice dating back to her movie debut in 1985’s The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s well-received adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel by the same name about a Black woman coming into her own while growing up in the South in the 1930s,
Goldberg has twice won NAACP Image Awards for those endeavors: once for her portrayal of a maid in 1955 Montgomery, Ala. who is forced to walk to and from work during the Black boycott of public transportation in 1990’s The Long Walk Home. She did so again in 1996’s Ghosts of Mississippi as Myrlie Evers, the wife of the Black civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who spends 25 years fighting for justice in the case of her husband’s murder in Mississippi in 1963.
The prolific Goldberg has continued to do appear in more of the same, in between appearing as a host on TV’s The View and her numerous high-profile movies that include Soapdish (1991), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Rat Race (2001), A Little Bit of Heaven (2011), Nobody’s Fool. And that doesn’t include her dozens of other films, TV shows, theatrical pieces, recordings and books.
A pair of particular Whoopi standouts are the TV series Strong Medicine (2000-06), which Goldberg created, produced and appears in, that revolves around a group of female doctors treating women and tackling female-centric issues at a women’s clinic; and Good Fences, a 2003 TV movie that she executive-produced and starred in, concerning the difficulties encountered by an upwardly mobile Black family in Connecticut for whom the American dream has become a nightmare.
Till marks the first narrative feature about the Emmett Till story, which has been the subject of several documentaries over the past two decades. including The Murder of Emmett Till from 2003, a PBS film that aired on the American Experience TV series; and the hour-long 2005 doc The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, directed by Keith Beauchamp.
Beauchamp also co-wrote the script for Till, which utilized his 27 years of research on Emmet’s story to inform the feature’s narrative.
According to Goldberg, it was Till co-producers Barbara Broccoli and Fred Zollo who used their status as big-time Hollywood movie-makers to garner attention for the project and raise funds for the script to become a film. (A crowd-funding campaign via Kickstarter also helped.)
But while Broccoli and Zollo are significant Hollywood movers with a list of impressive credits (Broccoli is the producer of the James Bond Franchise; Zollo’s movies include Quiz Show, Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi), it is the involvement of producer and actor Whoopi Goldberg that certainly raised the right eyebrows.
As reported by the New York Times, Goldberg, who, again, likes to speak her mind, introduced the film and spoke of its necessity at a screening in September with all the bluntness of, well, Whoopi Goldberg:
“You can’t get pissed off when people are stupid when you have the ability to make them smarter,” she declared.
Goldberg was surely thrilled to see that Till made noise at last week’s Gotham Awards, the season’s first big awards presentation and one that is generally regarded as a launching pad for positive press and box office momentum for the winners.
And that’s what was hopefully generated for Danielle Deadwyler, who won the prize for Outstanding Lead Performer (the Gotham’s feature gender-neutral category) for her role in Till, beating out a star-packed field that included Cate Blanchett (Tár) and Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once).
Deadwyler’s triumph certainly raised her stock to Oscar-worthy heights and she will almost definitely receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, alongside shoo-ins Blanchett and Yeoh.
But even better, and undoubtedly more satisfying for the filmmakers, cast members and Ms. Goldberg, there will now be more potential viewers curious enough to give Till a try, whether it be in theaters or on one of the major streaming platforms, where it’s currently available.
As everyone involved in making films will tell you, seeing the film, well, that’s what it’s all about.
And maybe it’ll have the ability to make us smarter.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.