By Harmeet Kaur, CNN
Chinonye Chukwu didn’t want to make a film about black trauma.
The director of the recently released film ‘Till,’ which focuses on Grandma Till-Mobley as she fights for justice after the murder of her son, said she was not interested in portraying the moment Emmett Till was brutally beaten to death in 1955 Mississippi.
“The story is about Grandma and her journey, so there was no need to show the physical abuse inflicted on Emmett,” Chukwu told CNN. “As a black person, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to recreate it.
In bringing Till-Mobley’s story to the big screen, Chukwu was intentional about what she chose to show and what she chose to leave out. The film doesn’t dramatize the vicious and violent manner in which Emmett was killed, but it depicts his horribly mutilated body – an image that Till-Mobley shared with the world and which catalyzed the civil rights movement.
Still, “Till” couldn’t avoid being drawn into a debate over “black trauma porn.” Shortly after the trailer’s release, some corners of Black Twitter wondered why a movie about Emmett Till was even necessary, quickly calling it Hollywood’s latest project to capitalize on black pain and tragedy. More than a few said they wouldn’t watch.
The filmmakers behind “Till” say this classification ignores the care and context they gave to this story. And they urge the public not to look away.
The problem with ‘Black trauma porn’
“Black trauma porn” – much like “disaster porn” or “poverty porn” – generally refers to graphic depictions of violence against black people that aim to elicit strong emotional reactions. The implication is that these images may be unnecessarily traumatic for black viewers for whom violence is an inescapable fact of life.
Increasingly, the term has been applied not only to videos of police shootings repeatedly shared 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 make a point of the harms of racism. But the “Black trauma porn” label has also been leveled more broadly at historical dramas about slavery or Jim Crow, like Barry Jenkins’ miniseries “The Underground Railroad” and now, “Till.”
Given this wide range, some experts believe the term “traumatic black porn” is overused and dismissive, leaving little room for discussion of how creatives might thoughtfully explore traumatic events and experiences at home. screen.
It’s not hard to see where the impetus for using this label came from, said Kalima Young, an assistant professor at Towson University whose work examines representations of race and gender trauma in the media. Black people are exhausted from constantly being subjected to real-life images of black pain and death, and to see this reproduced on screen as entertainment can feel like an overkill. Still, she said it was important to separate viral videos from creative works.
“When we use the term ‘trauma porn,’ we confuse the two and collapse what’s going on,” Young said. “It takes some of the nuance out of the conversation.”
Janell Hobson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Albany, understands why some black viewers might not have an appetite for “Till.” The two white men charged with murdering Emmett Till were eventually acquitted, though they later admitted to the murder, while earlier this year a grand jury declined to indict the white woman who framed him. accused of having made advances to him. Viewers know there has been no justice, and it hurts.
But although Hobson hasn’t seen “Till” yet, she thinks it’s a mistake to call it “Black trauma porn.”
“There’s a difference between critiquing a film designed to exploit and create excitement around images of dark trauma and dark pain and a drama designed to bring awareness to a very troubling part of our history,” he said. she stated. “There’s a difference between telling a story of black trauma and telling a story that’s ‘Black trauma porn’.”
How Till avoids the ‘trauma porn’ trap
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 subjected to violence or why that violence is portrayed in a certain way, she said — a balance that can be difficult to achieve in genres such as horror, in which violence has long been key. Failing to provide clear and convincing arguments for these choices can contribute to a feeling Young calls “empty empathy.”
“Empty empathy,” according to Young, is when viewers are asked to empathize with characters who are experiencing trauma without being offered the space or context to process those visceral feelings. In other words, it’s when the trauma is presented as a mere spectacle.
To avoid falling into this trap, filmmakers and TV producers need to think creatively about how they tell stories of trauma, Hobson said. This could involve subverting audience expectations like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” does when a police vehicle pulls up at the end, or telling a familiar story from a different angle, like “Till” does in highlighting Mamie Till-Mobley’s journey. Strong character development, along with interspersed moments of humor or rest, can also help soften the blow, Young added.
The team behind “Till” say they’ve worked hard to tell the Till-Mobley story with sensitivity. In interviews leading up to its release, Chukwu repeatedly stressed that the film contained no physical violence against black people. It also grounds Till-Mobley’s story in joy and dignity — the opening scene depicts Till-Mobley driving through Chicago with a carefree Emmett singing over the radio. The ending also closes with a lighter moment between mother and son.
But trauma is also integral here, and by giving this story a big-screen treatment, the filmmakers are honoring the memory of the real Till-Mobley.
Keith Beauchamp, producer and co-writer of “Till” who was a mentee of Till-Mobley, has a deep connection to this story. He worked closely with Till-Mobley on a documentary about the case. “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” published in 2005, led the federal government to reopen an investigation into the crime. Recently, he helped unearth an unissued arrest warrant from 1955 for the woman whose charges led to Emmett’s murder.
Beauchamp said “Till” had been 29 years in the making for him personally, and that Till-Mobley herself wanted that story to be told through film. He sees “Till” as a continuation of his fight for justice – not just for Emmett, but for everyone who came after him.
“We’re not looking to re-traumatize America,” he said. “But it’s the story of Emmett Louis Till, and it’s that photograph that has inspired generations of people and continues to inspire generations of people today.”
Why ‘Till’ matters
When complaints of “trauma porn” are filed, critics often ask who a particular job is for. Frankly speaking, is this portrayal of black trauma meant to appeal to white sympathies?
Young sees this involvement as a knee-jerk reaction. While “Till” skeptics might feel like they know Emmett Till’s story well, there are layers to that story that haven’t been fully unpacked.
“Did they really understand the context in which the situation occurred? Young asked. “Did we have enough time to discuss why Grandma Till would make this decision to have an open casket?”
Whether someone considers a story about dark trauma too much to bear or considers it imperative to witness is inherently subjective. It’s worth noting that many of the recent projects considered “black trauma porn” were the work of black creators – a clear reminder that black people are not a monolith.
Hobson also points out that black creatives have only recently been given the platform to tell their own stories. Viewers, of course, can choose not to watch, but black creators should be given the opportunity to air their wounds, however flawed their attempts.
At a time when Republican state legislatures are trying to restrict discussions of race and history in schools, Young said it’s crucial that stories like “Till” aren’t dismissed.
“In a country that is currently trying so desperately to crush 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 myriad voices to tell the black experiences of racial terror and history,” she added.
Beauchamp, for his part, hopes viewers will give “Till” a chance. Till-Mobley was “the mother of the civil rights movement” – an unsung hero who never had her. By revisiting his story now, he hopes to resurrect his spirit.
“I just want to once again awaken the sleeping giant of revolutionary change that this country desperately needs right now.”
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