Witnessing Black Trauma Onscreen in 2022

I am tired. It’s a refrain I’ve repeated to myself for at least two years, or certainly longer. In that refrain exists George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and yes, Emmett Till. I am tired of the voice that says “I must bear witness.” I am tired of the wait for change. I am tired of steeling myself against the images that I know will haunt me. And yet, I know it is unavoidable. How does one turn their back on the specter of Black trauma when the world will not let them forget? How does one cease to give Hollywood a break for solely taking interest in the same kind of story—the one where a Black person dies a gruesome death—without punishing the Black filmmaker? Are these stories even worth telling?

These questions have arisen around the release of Till, a Civil Rights biopic directed by Chinonye Chukwu, that focuses on Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley as she seeks justice for the torturous slaying of her son. These questions, however, are not new: Films that ask Black viewers to ingest the horrific deaths of African Americans have proliferated across the cinematic landscape for the last decade with varying degrees of integrity. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station successfully—by virtue of sensitively portraying Oscar Grant III as not just a victim but a loving father—details the aching final day of Grant’s life, and concludes with his real-life death at the hands of San Francisco police. Tellingly, in the scene depicting his death, you can see flip phones recording the crime, demarking the viral beginning of these contemporary videos in their grainy infancy.

After Fruitvale Station, unfortunately, unflinching, violent slave movies—just a few months later, Steve McQueen’s Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, and then in 2020, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum—followed. Of course these films weren’t setting a precedent: In the decades prior other slavery films found mainstream success: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, and Edward Zwick’s Glory come to mind as gazey precursors. Meanwhile, in the horror arena, a bevy of Black filmmakers took inspiration from the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but delivered degradation porn masquerading as prestige television with series like the Peele-produced Lovecraft Country and Them. These narratives thrust the viciousness rendered upon Black folks as their primary reason for existing; they take cover behind the importance of enacting destruction and witnessing its aftermath as a teaching tool without considering the toll taken upon the witnesser.

Read more: Americans Need to Examine Their Relationship to Images of Black Suffering

Can these kinds of stories—to be clear, other types of Black films do exist—ever be capable of representing Black life, not as a noxious battleground to litigate white guilt, but as producing a whole range of potential outcomes undefined by anti-Blackness? The answer is yes, sometimes: Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, Remi Weekes’ His House, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma triumph primarily because the trauma that does occur is discrete. It is not argued as a simplified truism of Black existence. Till, in its own way, attempts to dispel that notion too.

Till’s retelling of a heinous crime and its aftermath

Chukwu’s Till takes a familiar aim set by other antiracism films to interrogate white fragility, state-sponsored terrorism, and the power of witnessing heinous, prejudiced acts as a means for launching social and political change. The historical narrative plunges viewers into one of this country’s grimmest crimes, an event that fully exposed the unmitigated murderous hate doled out against Black folks by white supremacy (there has still not been a conviction for Emmett’s murder). Set in 1955, the film follows Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) as she seeks justice for the cold-blooded killing of her son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) by demanding the world to witness the violation of her young boy through her eyes.

When we first meet Emmett, he is an ebullient spirit guided by an aw-shucks whimsy. He occupies a vibrant space, where the sun shines unnaturally bright. The 14-year old—who his mom affectionately calls “Bo”—loves dancing with his mother, singing kitschy television jingles, and playing pranks. His happy-go-lucky mien and winking confidence suggests a bittersweet naiveté. It’s why, when Mamie sends Emmett to Money, Miss. to spend a week with his cousins, at her mother’s (Whoopi Goldberg) suggestion, she worries about his safety. She warns him about the different rules for African Americans in the South. She pleads for him to be small. Emmett gives a sure-mom promise that does little to avail her of her worry.

Read more: When One Mother Defied America: The Photo That Changed the Civil Rights Movement

Her worst fears are confirmed when Emmett and his cousins visit a store owned by Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). Unlike his cousin, who keeps his eyes downcast, Emmett can’t help but look right at her. To him, she looks like a movie star. And as he leaves, he wolf-whistles at her. Days later, in the dead of night, Emmett is dragged from his uncle’s house by Bryant’s husband Roy (Sean Michael Weber) and his cousin JW Milan (Eric Whitten), who torture him and dump his lifeless, swollen body into the Tallahatchie River where it was later discovered. Mamie’s decision to have an open-casket funeral and to allow Jet magazine to photograph her disfigured son sent shockwaves through the nation; it implicated future inaction as complicity.

Moving beyond merely witnessing to defining—and resisting

For modern audiences, however, the burden of witnessing is different than in 1955. Social media, the surface-level political expectations for film and television, and the unrelenting news cycle have rendered traumatic images as inescapable. Writing about the degrading images common in Black horror, The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis sharply observed, “Productions that engage with that real-life terror can, at times, feel more like brutal reenactments of senselessness than purposeful works of art, unintentionally compounding some Black viewers’ traumas.”

It’s worth noting that the Till family not only approved of the biopic—they pushed for it. But the demands of the Hollywood apparatus on Black filmmakers have caused African Americans to understandably view these works with greater mistrust. For Refinery29 Jazmin Kopotsha writes, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many Black actors have found their entry into big money, blockbuster roles via films that follow a stereotypical, largely American narrative of Black history.” That uneasy trend created an uphill climb for Chukwu and Till. From the moment the first images of Till surfaced, in fact, users on Twitter were already apprehensive.

The swift reaction is indicative of the pressure faced by Black filmmakers not just on the subject of race, but with any topic. They are often expected to tell an important story, to be wholly original, to offer the hope and joy stamped out by the real world, to redress history, to entertain, all without succumbing to miserabilism or glibness. Can art thrive under such conditions? Is it unfair for Black viewers to demand that Black filmmakers fill the void ripped open by white supremacy by creating films that unrealistically exclude all hints of trauma? “What if Black film could be something other than embodied? What if Black film was immaterial and bodiless?” Michael Boyce Gillespie asks in Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. “ What if Black film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror?” With Till, Chukwu doesn’t merely portray Emmett’s death as a chance to make headway against present-day racism. She illustrates not how Mamie witnessed her son. But how she defined him.

Witnessing Black Trauma Onscreen in 2022

Consider that we never actually see Emmett’s murder. Instead, Chukwu provides a wide master shot of a barn with a single orange glow emanating from a doorway barely visible from our setback vantage point. We hear Emmett’s scream cut across the field, with the slurs spoken by his captors not too far behind. If Till was solely concerned with the power of witnessing we’d see his death. But Chukwu is an intelligent filmmaker. She knows that if she cuts into the barn, she’ll cede the camera’s gaze to Emmett’s white murderers. She instead chooses not to prioritize their violence by obscuring it from the audience.

Chukwu focuses on the aftermath of what happened to Emmett. When Mamie first enters the room to view her son’s body, it is obscured from our view. Chukwu places the lens just behind a gurney, only to pan up and reveal his unsettling remains. Mamie examines him; as the camera gently follows, she tenderly runs her fingers from his feet, pausing at every scar, to his hip, and up to his face. It seems cruel to linger on his ravaged features, but Chukwu has a purpose. Alone with her deceased son, Mamie nearly collapses, and in one of Deadwyler’s many stirring turns, her face morphs from tearful mourning, to empathic anger, to sharp resolve. In that moment she decides to let Jet magazine photograph his body; and she chooses an open casket. “If we wait to be identified from the outside, no matter what definition we are given, it will always be to our detriment,” explains Audre Lorde in Dream of Europe: Selected Seminars and Interviews. “Whosoever is defining you will do so in terms of their needs and not yours.” Before Emmett can be defined by an apathetic white America, Mamie will introduce him to the country. He was not a lascivious brute. He was a 14-year old boy. He was her happy Bo.

“I didn’t want to traumatize myself as a Black woman and I didn’t want to traumatize audiences,” explains Chukwu to EW. “Part of what incited such a global reaction to what happened to Emmett was that the world saw the aftermath of what happened.” Chukwu’s previous film, Clemency, followed a Black prison warden (played by Alfre Woodard) in the lead-up to the execution of a Black man (Aldis Hodge). In that film, Chukwu similarly interrogated how the act of observing the effects of structural racism—in this case, the prison-industrial complex and capital punishment—and participating in maintaining its apparatus, could sand down a person: How do you support Black uplift, when your existence is defined through a white system? In steering the events surrounding Emmett’s killing through the eyes of Mamie, Chukwu attempts, to slightly lesser success, a similar gambit: In one scene Mamie explains how she once believed the ills suffered by African Americans living in the South did not concern those in the North, thereby applying the same kind of hierarchical valuation of the worth of Black life used by white folks. The death of her son becomes an opportunity for Mamie to redefine herself too.

Consider the film’s most unflinching scene, when Mamie, in spite of the harm that could befall her, decides to take the witness stand. There she recounts her examination of her son’s body, how she lingered on the memories trapped underneath his skin. It’s a tremendous one-shot that’s as composed as Mamie, which not only demands the audience not look away, but see her tell the courtroom who her son was. It’s telling, however, that Mamie isn’t the only one who takes the stand: Emmett’s uncle and another Black eyewitness insert their personhood by sharing their truth. “One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance—places where we know we are not alone,” says bell hooks in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. In taking the stand, they aren’t solely recognized for their witnessing. They are rebirthed as resistors, serving a purpose beyond suffering.

The struggle for what Black film might become

In 1955, the shock of seeing Emmett on Jet Magazine galvanized a movement. Today, similar murders of Black folks have led to analogous instances of defiance. But art, especially film, works on a different level now. Think about the ubiquitousness of the moving image, how we’ve moved from flip phones, as seen in Fruitvale Station, to smartphones capable of shooting movies. In a complementary vein, the images of Black deprivation in film, which can so acutely mimic the police body cam videos that so often capture Black death, has become just as ubiquitous. A film like Till is caught in the liminal space of being too traumatic for some and not traumatic enough for others; particularly white audiences, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, have often shown an intense affection for films that inflict the maximum amount of Black pain.

Lost in the ambiguous discussion of trauma is nuance. The question shouldn’t be whether a movie should capture Black pain. The problem in film arises when the camera only asks for an audience to witness. In that scenario, the entire purpose of the image is catered to white audiences who want to relieve their guilt by witnessing Black trauma rather than through Black viewers who want humanizing stories. Black life flatly from the outside of white consumption rather than contextually from the inside of Black humanization. Too often, Hollywood, aiming for the quick sell to the mainstream (read white people), prizes the former over the latter. And few Black filmmakers have the industry cache to fight back against what might be their big break.

Why, in what’s purported to be a renaissance for Black filmmaking, is the release of every Black story treated as another skirmish for the soul of Black cinema? Maybe it’s not so much that Black filmmaking has entered a renaissance in the last decade, but that it is experiencing an internal chain reaction, whereby the soul of Black cinema is redefining itself with every film. Maybe Till is the newest struggle in the fight for what the Black film will become. But in order to see what it will become, maybe, despite our best efforts to avoid it, we must endure some pain.

Robert Daniels is a film critic with bylines in The New York Times, LA Times, RogerEbert.com, IndieWire and so forth. He has written widely about Black American pop culture and representation in film and television.

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