NY — Just the thought of playing Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, was enough to give Danielle Deadwyler pause to consider the cost of such a role.
“You go: what will happen to me?” Deadwyler says. “What are the steps you need to take to make sure you can do this to the best of your ability and come out on the other side where you still have all your ABC’s and your chemical dynamics together?”
Playing Till-Mobley meant diving into one of the ugliest chapters in American history, when 14-year-old Till was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi. Just the scene Deadwyler would audition with, when Mamie first sees the brutalized corpse of her son, was heartbreaking. On Deadwyler’s shoulders would fall the responsibility of the story, of honoring Till-Mobley and of reflecting a pain known to generations of black mothers. Deadwyler mustered her determination.
“I wanted to be the person who carried the weight,” says Deadwyler.
In Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” Deadwyler delivers one of the most powerful and intensely expressive performances of the year, charting Till-Mobley’s profound metamorphosis into civil rights leader. Deadwyler, herself, is undergoing a transformation. In her first lead role in a movie, Deadwyler, 40, has overcome the other side of playing Mamie with her balance intact but with a few changes to those internal “dynamics.” For her, there will be a before and after. “Until.”
“Life is just different,” Deadwyler says. “It is learning a new personality. Art is self-revelation”.
Deadwyler has made his mark for several years in shows like “Station Eleven” and “Atlanta” and in the western “The Harder They Fall.” But her performance as Mamie, a portrait of private grief and public awakening, catapulted her fame. It has made Deadwyler a top contender for best actress at the Academy Awards, and an easy choice to be among The Associated Press’ Breakthrough Artists of 2022.
Deadwyler, who until recently was filming Jaume Collet-Serra’s thriller “Carry On” in Atlanta, has been too busy to absorb much. When he won Best Lead Performance at the Gotham Awards last month, Chukwu accepted the award for her. But with a string of nominations, there are other awards shows coming up for Deadwyler.
“No matter what happens, it happens,” says Deadwyler. “I’ll show up and try to look cute.”
Chukwu had spent months searching for an actor to play Mamie before Deadwyler’s self-recorded audition blew her mind.
“I feel like a lot of us have been sleeping on his incredible talent,” says Chukwu. “I hope this film can help a lot more people see the brilliance that has always been there.”
Deadwyler, who grew up in Atlanta, immediately recognized Till-Mobley’s story as relatable, as a mother and, she says, as a “daughter of the civil rights legacy.” She grew up in Cascade United Methodist Church and was a student volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization co-founded by Martin Luther King Jr. “I’ve known this story my whole life,” she says.
But getting inside Till-Mobley was a learning process, even if some aspects of the character were painfully familiar. The film opens with Till-Mobley’s apparent trepidation in sending his son, a cheerful and self-assured young man, to the South of the 1950s.
“I have a son who will soon be 13 years old. I had to have the same conversations that Mamie had to have, not wanting to take away the lightness or the light of who they are,” says Deadwyler. “So many black mothers are having that conversation. Black parents in general are considering how to empower our children and nurture them, keep them optimistic and free and, at the same time, deeply aware.”
While filming “Till,” Chukwu discovered that much of the drama could be told in Deadwyler’s eyes and face. Then she would strip the scenes. When Till-Mobley memorably takes the stand at her son’s trial in Mississippi, the camera remains focused on Deadwyler.
“After one take, my cinematographer and I looked at each other and said, ‘Damn. We may not need everything else because Danielle is so captivating in communicating all the rhythms, all the emotional tension,’” says Chukwu. “It may be her own act of resistance on who you decide to put the camera in front of who you decide not to put the camera in front of.”
After filming “Till,” Deadwyler required a month of rest, therapy and acupuncture to rehab. “I had to rebuild,” she says. “Make new choices.”
But she’s found that talking about the movie, heavy as its themes, has also been healing. One of Till-Mobley’s most important decisions was to allow Till’s mutilated body to be photographed in an open casket, images that captured the barbarism of American racial injustice and fueled the civil rights movement. “They had to see what I had seen,” Till-Mobley wrote in his 2003 memoir. “The whole nation had to bear witness.”
“It’s a joy to talk about it because then I get a release. That’s what Mommy said. She said that talking about Emmett, talking about her experience was healing for her,” says Deadwyler. “So she did it as much as she could. She did until the day he died. She wanted to not be the only person talking about it.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
For more information on the AP Breakthrough Entertainers class of 2022, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers