How MGM has sold a drama about a terrible tragedy
Till, out this week from MGM, begins with one of the most tragic stories in American history before turning it into one of the most empowering and inspirational.
Danielle Deadwyler stars as Mamie Till, a Chicago mother who one day in 1955 sends her son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) to visit family in Mississippi. While there, and having never lived in under that South’s extreme Jim Crow rules, he accidentally offends a white shopkeeper and is subsequently beaten to death by a racist mob. In the years following that terrible incident, Mamie Till went on to become one of the leading speakers and activists in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Frankie Faison and Whoopi Goldberg play Mamie’s father and mother.
The movie is directed and co-written by Chinonye Chukwu, so let’s look at how MGM has sold it to the public as we get deeper into awards season.
announcements and casting
The movie was announced in late-July 2020, with director Chinonye Chukwu attached to helm the project.
Goldberg and Deadwyler were announced as cast leads in July, 2021. Hall was cast in the title role a month later and Bennett added in November of that year along with others as filming was getting underway.
the marketing campaign
A poster showing Emmett hugging his mother – her yellow dress the only color in the otherwise black-and-white photo – was released in July, 2022.
Goldberg appeared on “Good Morning America” to debut the trailer (3.5m YouTube views) at that time. It begins with Mamie sending Emmett off to Mississippi with warnings about minding his behavior while he’s down there. His death incites her to activism, beginning with her well-known decision to leave his casket open so everyone can see exactly what was done to her son. That’s only the beginning of her work, though.
MGM announced the film’s world premiere would take place during the New York Film Festival and include a Q&A session with the filmmakers that would also be shared with classrooms across the country.
In mid-September a featurette was released that has the cast and crew, including the president of Orion Pictures and others, talking about why they wanted to tell this story and how important it is for today’s audience to see it. Also addressed is how the movie does not feature violence against black bodies because of how exploitative and traumatic such incidents are often portrayed.
Along those same lines, an interview with Chukwu has her talking about how she and others wanted to focus on Mamie’s story as a source of inspiration and the legacy she created as opposed to the terrible tragedy that befell Emmett.
Goldberg hosted a screening in New York City with Chukwu talking about making the movie and crafting the story. A number of notable names from Hollywood, journalism and the ongoing civil rights movement were in attendance to lend their support to the film and its message.
The first TV spot that aired a bit later in September plays like a short featurette, with Chukwu and Goldberg talking about what the movie’s story is and how they want to share an important and inspiring chapter of American history. Later commercials alternated between that or a more traditional approach.
Most of the cast and crew appeared at the NYFF premiere at the beginning of October. While there Goldberg made it clear the events depicted in the film are the result of systemic racism, which was and is a real thing. She also implied that the movie had been considered by other festivals earlier in the year but weren’t chosen because it wasn’t seen as the right fit for those audiences.
A second trailer (2.3m YouTube views) came out at that time, perhaps to capitalize on the positive buzz coming out of the screening. It follows the same basic outline as the first trailer but with some new footage that continues to emphasize how Emmett’s murder in Mississippi galvanized Mamie to speaking out about the kind of racism faced by Black people everywhere.
Another poster was released as well, this one just showing Mamie Till in close-up, making it clear this is her story the audience can expect to see.
Deadwyler appeared on “Kimmel” to promote the film and working with the other filmmakers to tell such an important story.
There was another premiere, this time in Los Angeles, where those involved once again walked the photo line along with others from activist circles.
One last interview with Deadwyler had her talking about what a privilege it was to play Mamie Till with all her strength and fire.
It’s not uncommon to see a campaign for a movie based on real-life events to focus on *why* the story was important to tell.
What’s less common is what we see here, which is the filmmakers explaining repeatedly why they decided to tell a story *in this way.” Specifically, Chukwu, Goldberg and others have made a point of explaining that despite Emmett Till’s terrible, violent death being the incident that incites Mamie to activism, that event is not shown on-screen.
The rest of the marketing doesn’t stray too far from standard tactics and beats, but that in particular stands out and illustrates how much the people who are making a movie – or any other piece of art – matter. A group of white filmmakers may not have been as sensitive to how triggering or traumatic yet another depiction of violence might be, but this group was and made a different choice.