Section: Arts

“Till” showing, conversation insightfully reflect on tragedy

On Monday, filmmaker and activist Keith Beauchamp visited Kenyon to discuss his latest project, the biographical film “Till.” He joined Assistant Professor of American Studies and History Francis Gourrier ’08 onstage in Rosse Hall for a discussion about Beauchamp’s life, activism and filmmaking career. This talk was the second part of an event sponsored by the Faculty Lectureships Committee; the first part was a screening of “Till” in Oden Auditorium the day prior. The film tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, and her tireless fight for justice following the horrific lynching of her son in Mississippi in 1955.

As a film, “Till” is a masterpiece of emotional, respectful storytelling. Its upsetting subject matter makes the film difficult to sit through, but it is absolutely worth the watch. The heart of the film is without a doubt the character of Mamie; Danielle Deadwyler’s harrowing portrayal of a grieving mother is moving and unforgettable. Jalyn Hall as Emmett is equally impactful, bringing joy and life to a young boy who is tragically only known for his death.

One of the greatest challenges in telling the story of Emmett Till is the issue of respectful depiction. Having worked closely with the Till family for years, Beauchamp was especially cautious about this. “We did not want to retraumatize the community in any way,” he said during the discussion. “Till” makes the conscious decision to not show any violence being inflicted, depicting the murder only through the sounds of blows and Emmett’s cries of pain. This decision prevents the film from feeling sensational or exploitative.

The one instance where “Till” takes the route of graphic depiction is in the choice to show Emmett’s mutilated body. Beauchamp and the rest of the production team felt that it was important for the audience to see the horrific nature of racial hatred taken to its most violent extremes, echoing the motivation behind Till-Mobley’s decision to have an open casket funeral and to allow the media to publish photos of Emmett’s body.

The attendees on Monday night were a mix of Kenyon students, faculty and outside guests, including people who came all the way from Cleveland to hear Beauchamp speak. Beauchamp opened the discussion by telling two stories from his personal life that informed his activism. First, he described being ten years old and seeing side-by-side photos in Jet magazine: one of Emmett alive with his mother, and one of Emmett’s mutilated body. He explained the profound impact this had on him as a young Black boy, able to see himself in Emmett. The second story was of his experience being the victim of police violence for dancing with his white friend at his high school prom, which he described as the moment he knew he wanted to pursue a career fighting for racial justice.

After Beauchamp introduced himself and spoke briefly about his filmmaking experience, Gourrier opened the floor for discussion. Audience members asked a variety of questions, including ones about Beauchamp’s relationship with Till-Mobley, how he balanced accuracy with responsible depiction and what he envisioned a just future might look like.

Although the event officially ended after an hour, dozens of attendees stayed for the reception to ask Beauchamp further questions. During the reception, he spoke to the Collegian about what he most wants Kenyon students to take away from his work: “I want you to be inspired,” he said. “We don’t just need artists anymore; we need ‘artivists.’ We don’t need allies anymore; we need accomplices.”

In recent years, Beauchamp’s tireless efforts and collaborations with the Till family have helped facilitate several important legal steps forward. In 2022, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, which made lynching a federal hate crime. However, Beauchamp wants to emphasize that these improvements are only the beginning of a long journey towards justice. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he told the Collegian. “We don’t need lip service. Pressure needs to happen.”

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