Chinonye Chukwu did not want to make a film about Black trauma.
The director of the newly released movie “Till,” which focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley as she fights for justice after her son’s death, said she was not interested in depicting the moment when Emmett Till was brutally beaten in 1955. Mississippi.
“The story is about Mamie and her journey, so it wasn’t narratively necessary to show the physical violence inflicted on Emmett,” Chukwu told CNN. “As a black person, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to recreate it.”
In bringing Till-Mobley’s story to the big screen, Chukwu was deliberate about what he wanted to show and what he left out. The film does not dramatize the vicious and violent manner in which Emmett was killed, but it does depict his horribly mutilated body, an image that Till-Mobley famously shared with the world and catalyzed the civil rights movement.
However, “Till” couldn’t help but enter the discussion about “Black trauma pornography”. Shortly after the trailer was released, some corners of Black Twitter questioned why a movie about Emmett Till was even needed, and were quick to point to Black as the latest Hollywood project to capitalize on pain and tragedy. More than a few said they wouldn’t see it.
The filmmakers behind “Till” say this classification ignores the focus and context they brought to this story. And they ask the audience not to look.
“Black trauma pornography” – like “disaster pornography” or “poverty pornography” – generally refers to graphic depictions of violence against Black people intended to evoke strong emotional responses. The implication is that these images may be unnecessarily traumatizing to black viewers for whom violence is an inevitable fact of life.
Increasingly, the term has been applied not only to videos of police shootings that are repeatedly shared online, but also to movies and TV series. Amazon’s horror anthology series “Them” and thriller film “Antebellum” are among recent projects criticized for depicting gratuitous violence against black characters to make a point about the evils of racism. But the label “Black trauma porn” has also spread to historical dramas about slavery or Jim Crow, such as Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” and now, the miniseries “Till.”
Given this broad umbrella, some experts believe that the term “Black trauma porn” is overused and dismissive, leaving little room for debate about how creatives can carefully explore traumatic events and experiences on screen.
It’s not hard to understand where the impulse to use that label comes from, said Kalima Young, an assistant professor at Towson University whose work focuses on media representations of race- and gender-based trauma. Black people are exhausted from constantly being exposed to real-life images of Black pain and death, and seeing that repeated on screen can feel exploitative. However, he said it’s important to separate viral videos from creative work.
“When we use the term ‘trauma porn,’ we conflate the two and collapse what’s going on,” Young said. “It takes some of the nuance out of the conversation.”
Janell Hobson, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, understands why black audiences have been reluctant to watch “Till.” The two white men accused of murdering Emmett Till were eventually acquitted, although they later admitted to the murder, after a grand jury earlier this year refused to indict the white woman for making advances on him. The audience knows there was no justice, and that hurts.
But while Hobson hasn’t seen “Till” yet, she feels calling it “black trauma porn” is a mistake.
“There is no difference between criticizing a film that is designed to exploit and create excitement around images of black trauma and black pain, as opposed to a drama that is designed to raise awareness about a very troubling part of our history,” he said. “There’s a difference between telling a Black trauma story and telling a story that’s ‘Black trauma porn.'”
So what is the line between a Black trauma story and a “Black trauma porn”?
For Young, the difference is context. Creators have a responsibility to justify why a certain black character is experiencing violence or that violence is portrayed in a certain way, he said; This balance can be difficult in genres like horror, in which violence has long existed. the key Failure to provide a clear and convincing case for these possibilities can lead to a feeling of what Young calls “pure empathy.”
“Pure empathy,” according to Young, is when the audience is invited to empathize with characters experiencing trauma without giving them the space or context to process those visceral feelings. In other words, it is when trauma is presented as mere spectacle.
To avoid falling into that trap, filmmakers and television producers need to think creatively about how they tell trauma stories, Hobson said. That might mean subverting audience expectations, as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” does when a police cruiser pulls up at the end, or telling a familiar story from a different perspective, as “Till” does by highlighting Mamie Till-Mobley’s journey. Strong character development, as well as interspersed with moments of humor or rest, can help soften the blow, Young adds.
The team behind “Till” says they’ve worked hard to tell Till-Mobley’s story in a meaningful way. In interviews prior to the release, Chukwu has repeatedly insisted that the film does not contain physical violence against Black people. Till-Mobley’s story is also grounded in joy and dignity; the opening scene shows Till-Mobley driving through Chicago with a carefree Emmett singing on the radio. The ending also closes on a lighter moment between mother and son.
But trauma is also very important here, and in giving this story the big screen treatment, the filmmakers are honoring Till-Mobley’s real-life memory.
Keith Beauchamp, Till-Mobley’s mentor and producer and co-writer of the film “Till,” has a deep connection to this history. He worked with Till-Mobley on a documentary about the case. Released in 2005, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” reopened the federal government’s investigation into the crime. Recently, the woman’s allegations that led to Emmett’s murder helped clear up an outstanding warrant from 1955.
Beauchamp said that “Till” has been in the making for him personally for 29 years, and that Till-Mobley himself wanted to tell this story through film. He sees “Till” as a continuation of the fight for justice, not just for Emmet, but for everyone who came after him.
“We’re not in the business of re-traumatizing America,” he said. “But this is the story of Emmett Louis Till, and it was that picture that inspired generations of people and continues to inspire generations today.”
When complaints of “trauma porn” are made, critics often ask who a particular work is for. Put bluntly, is this depiction of black trauma intended to appeal to white sympathy?
Young considers this involvement a knee-jerk reaction. While “Till” skeptics may think they know a lot of Emmett Till’s history, there are layers to that story that haven’t quite unraveled.
“Did they really understand the context of why the situation happened?” Young asked. “Have we had enough to sit through the conversation about why Mamie Till would make that decision to have an open casket?”
Whether or not one considers a story of black trauma too much to bear or an imperative to bear witness to is inherently subjective. It’s worth noting that many of the recent projects considered “Black trauma pornography” have been the work of Black creators, and it’s an obvious reminder that Black people are not monoliths.
Hobson also noted that Black creatives have only recently been given a platform to tell their stories. Viewers can, of course, choose not to watch, but Black creators must be allowed space to air their wounds, even if they are imperfect attempts.
At a time when Republican state lawmakers are trying to limit discussions of race and history in schools, Young said it’s critical not to ignore stories like “Till.”
“In a country that right now is trying to crush the ghosts that live beneath the surface of this country, it’s important to keep digging, to keep sowing, to keep allowing. Multiple voices to tell the experiences of racial terror and black history,” he added.
Beauchamp, for his part, hopes audiences will give “Till” a chance. Till-Mobley was the “mother of the civil rights movement,” an unsung hero she never deserved. Revisiting his story now, he hopes to rekindle his spirit.
“I want to reawaken the sleeping giant of revolutionary change that is essential in this country right now.”