Chinonye Chukwu didn’t want to make a film about black trauma.
The director of the newly released “Till,” which centers on Mamie Till-Mobley fighting for justice after her son was killed, said she was not interested in depicting the moment Emmett Till was brutally beaten to death in the film. 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 him. I didn’t want to recreate it. ”
In bringing the Till-Mobley story to the big screen, Chukwu was intentional about what he chose to show and what he chose to omit. The film does not dramatize the vicious and violent way Emmett was killed, but it does describe his horribly mutilated body, an image Till-Mobley famously shared with the world and which catalyzed the civil rights movement.
However, “Till” couldn’t help but get involved in a debate about “black trauma porn”. Soon after the trailer was released, some corners of Black Twitter wondered why an Emmett Till movie was needed, quickly characterizing it as the latest Hollywood project to capitalize on black pain and tragedy. More than a few said they wouldn’t watch.
The makers of “Till” argue that this classification ignores the care and context that led to this story. And they are urging the public not to look away.
“Black trauma porn” – just like “disaster porn” or “poverty porn” – generally refers to graphic representations of violence against blacks that are meant to elicit strong emotional responses. The implication is that these images can be unnecessarily traumatizing to black viewers for whom violence is an inevitable fact of life.
Increasingly, the term has been applied not only to police shooting videos shared repeatedly 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 highlight the evils of racism. But the “Black trauma porn” label has also been directed more broadly to historical dramas about slavery or Jim Crow, such as Barry Jenkins’ miniseries “The Underground Railroad” and now “Till”.
Given that broad umbrella, some experts believe the term “Black trauma porn” is overused and contemptuous, leaving little room for discussion of how creatives might explore traumatic events and experiences on screen in a thoughtful way.
It’s not hard to understand where the impetus to use that label comes from, said Kalima Young, an assistant professor at Towson University whose work focuses on portrayals of race and gender trauma in the media. Blacks are exhausted from constantly being subjected to real-life images of black pain and death, and seeing them replicated on screen as entertainment can feel like exploitation. However, she said it is important to separate viral videos from creative work.
“When we use the term ‘trauma porn’, we confuse the two and bring down what’s going on,” Young said. “It removes some nuances from the conversation.”
Janell Hobson, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Albany, understands why some black viewers may not have an appetite for “Till”. The two white men accused of Emmett Till’s murder were eventually acquitted, despite later admitting to the murder, while earlier this year a grand jury refused to indict the white woman who accused him of making advances in against him. Viewers know there was no justice, and this is painful.
But although Hobson hasn’t seen “Till” yet, he feels it’s a mistake to call it “black trauma porn”.
“There is a difference between critiquing a film designed to exploit and create tease around images of black trauma and black pain versus a drama designed to raise awareness about a very troubling part of our history,” he said. “There is a difference between telling a story of black trauma and telling a story that is ‘black trauma porn.'”
What, then, is the line between a black trauma story and “black trauma porn?”
For Young, the distinguishing factor is context. Creators have a responsibility to justify why a particular black character is subject to violence or why that violence is portrayed in a certain way, he said, a balance that can be difficult to achieve in genres such as horror, where violence has long been key. Failing to provide a clear and compelling case for such choices can contribute to a feeling that Young calls “empty empathy.”
“Empty empathy,” according to Young, is when viewers are asked to empathize with characters who are experiencing trauma without being given the space or context to process those gut feelings. In other words, it is when the trauma is presented as mere spectacle.
To avoid falling into that trap, TV directors and producers need to think creatively about how they tell trauma stories, Hobson said. This could involve subverting audience expectations as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” does when a police cruiser stops at the end, or telling a family story from a different perspective, as “Till” does by highlighting the journey. by Mamie Till-Mobley. Strong character development, as well as moments of humor or rest, can also help soften the blow, Young added.
The team behind “Till” claims to have worked hard to tell the story of Till-Mobley in a sensitive way. In interviews leading up to its release, Chukwu repeatedly stressed that the film does not contain physical violence against blacks. In addition, he bases the Till-Mobley story on joy and dignity: the opening scene portrays Till-Mobley driving around Chicago with a carefree Emmett singing on the radio. The finale also closes on a lighter moment between mother and child.
But trauma is integral here too, and in giving this story the big screen treatment, the filmmakers are honoring Till-Mobley’s real-life memory.
Keith Beauchamp, producer and co-writer of “Till” who was a pupil of Till-Mobley, has a deep connection with this story. He worked closely with Till-Mobley on a documentary about the case. “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till”, released in 2005, led the federal government to reopen a crime investigation. Most recently, he helped unearth an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for the woman whose charges led to Emmett’s murder.
Beauchamp said that “Till” had 29 years of work for him personally and that Till-Mobley herself wanted this story to be told through a film. She sees “Till” as a continuation of his fight for justice, not just for Emmett, but for everyone who has come after him.
“We are not in the business of re-traumatizing America,” he said. “But that’s the story of Emmett Louis Till, and it was that photograph that inspired generations of people and continues to inspire generations of people today.”
When complaints of “porn trauma” are filed, critics often ask who a particular job is for. Put simply, is that representation of black trauma bound to appeal to the sympathies of whites?
Young considers this implication an instinctive reaction. While “Till” skeptics may feel they are very familiar with the Emmett Till story, there are layers in that story that haven’t been completely unpacked.
“Did they really understand the context of why the situation arose?” asked the young man. “Did we have enough time to talk about why Mamie Till decided to open a coffin?”
Whether someone considers a black trauma story too much to bear or if they consider it imperative to testify is inherently subjective. It is noteworthy that many of the recent projects considered “Black trauma porn” have been the work of black creatives, an obvious reminder that blacks are not a monolith.
Hobson also points out that only recently have black creatives been given the platform to tell their own stories. Viewers, of course, can choose not to watch, but Black’s creators should be given the space to ventilate their wounds, however imperfect their attempts.
At a time when Republican state legislatures are trying to limit discussions of race and history in schools, Young said it’s critical that stories like “Till” are not rejected.
“In a country that is currently trying so desperately to suppress the ghosts that live under the soil of this country, it is important that we continue to dig – that we continue to sow, that we continue to allow a myriad of voices to tell the experiences of the black with racial terror and history, “he added.
Beauchamp, for his part, hopes that viewers will give “Till” a chance. Till-Mobley was “the mother of the civil rights movement” – an unknown hero who never got his due. By revisiting her story now, she hopes to resurrect his spirit of hers.
“I just want to awaken once again the sleeping giant of revolutionary change that it desperately needs in this country right now.”