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Filmmaker says Emmett Till's mother deserves her rightful place in history

Chinonye Chukwu's new film, Till, works to afford Mamie her "rightful place in history" by telling the story through his mother's point of view. Though Emmett's murder is central to the narrative, Chukwu purposefully chose not to portray it on-screen.

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Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with Chinonye Chukwu; Review of "The Revolutionary".

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. For generations, the story of Emmett Till's lynching was told as a cautionary tale that starts with an image of Till's mutilated body in an open casket. The 14-year-old, who was from Chicago, was murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi. Sixty-seven years later, a new movie tells the story of Emmett Till through the lens of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. "Till" was co-written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, who makes Emmett Till's mother the protagonist, illustrating how her decisions became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Chukwu sat down to talk about the movie and her career with guest interviewer and host of the podcast Truth Be Told, Tonya Mosley.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Like most Black people in America, Chinonye Chukwu grew up learning about the story of Emmett Till. But what she and fewer people knew was the journey of Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, before and after her son was lynched. In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till took the train from his hometown of Chicago to Mississippi to spend a few weeks with relatives. Before leaving, his mother, Mamie, gives him a set of directions on how to behave while down South. Here's a clip of Mamie, played by Danielle Deadwyler, talking to Emmett, played by Jalyn Hall, who she calls by his nickname, Bo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TILL")

DANIELLE DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) All right, now. You're going to miss your train. Bo, when you get down there...

JALYN HALL: (As Emmett Till) Oh, not again, Mama. I've already been to Mississippi.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Only one time before. And you started a fight with another little boy.

HALL: (As Emmett Till) He was picking on me.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) You're in the right to stand up for yourself, but that's not what I'm talking about. They have a different set of rules for Negroes down there. Are you listening?

HALL: (As Emmett Till) Yes.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) You have to be extra careful with white people. You can't risk looking at them the wrong way.

HALL: (As Emmett Till) I know.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Go. Be small down there.

MOSLEY: That was a clip from the new movie "Till," co-written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. This is Chukwu's third film. She was the writer and director of "Alaskaland" and the 2019 film "Clemency," a movie about the unraveling of a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job. Chukwu, a Nigerian American from Fairbanks, Alaska, won the 2019 Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for "Clemency," making Chukwu the first Black woman to win.

Chinonye Chukwu, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Thank you so much for having me. I'm looking forward to talking with you.

MOSLEY: Oh, well, thank you for being here. I'm looking forward to this conversation. Emmett was murdered 67 years ago. Why did it take so long to produce a film?

CHUKWU: Well, I think it's a lot of different reasons that include the powers that be not valuing the story, not valuing Black people's stories and humanities on screen. The story is one that is a reflection of a very painful reality - history and reality of this country and of our world that I'm sure that there were moments when there might have been studios who didn't want to show that on screen or address that, you know - and also figuring out the right way to tell the story, the best way to tell the story. I know it's taken some time, but I think it's all of those reasons and more.

MOSLEY: When Orion Pictures approached you to direct, you said you'd only do it if it centered Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. That goes back to you saying the direction of the film and the point of view was something that needed to be figured out. You were ignited by this challenge of making a Black mother the hero in a hero's journey. You actually call it a character study. Why did you want to focus on her?

CHUKWU: Well, without Mamie Till-Mobley, the world wouldn't know who Emmett Till was. So I knew that she was the heartbeat of the story, the core, the foundation. And it is her work, her courage, after his lynching that helped become a catalyst for the modern American civil rights movement. And yet she and other Black women are so often erased from history and erased from stories that involve movement building and civil rights. And so I really wanted to center her, a Black woman, in her rightful place in history. And so when the producers approached me three years ago, I told them that this is how I wanted to approach the narrative and approach the film. And thankfully, they wanted that, too.

MOSLEY: Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003. And as you said, much of what we know about her is from that very short window of time in her life. What are some details that you learned about her during your research for this film?

CHUKWU: One of the big things that I learned that Danielle Deadwyler, the actress who plays Mamie, and I talked about a lot was the complex negotiations she had to make between her public and private self, her presentational self and who she was in private. And she's navigating a lot of different kind of masks that she's having to put on as a Black woman in the world, a Black woman in America. So, for instance, when she goes to Mississippi for the trial and it's at this predominantly white, hostile space and she is very much aware of those gazes and the - her presentational self in that space versus who she is when she's all by herself versus who she is when she's with her child versus when she's with her partner, Gene, family, etc., etc., there are these constant negotiations she's having to make.

And, I mean, there's a scene in the film where Mamie is having a conversation with Huff, who's the legal counsel for the NAACP. And he's vetting her, essentially, and - based on how he thinks people will come at her, how the media - how he thinks the media will come at her and so wanting to make sure that she's ready to face that and those kinds of racist, sexist negotiations that mean he's going to have to navigate the - you know, the angry, Black woman stereotype, the Jezebel stereotype, and this kind of policing of her body language and the way she looks. And all of that is absolutely what I and so many Black women in the world are constantly navigating in our lives to this day. And so I really, really empathized with Mamie in that way.

MOSLEY: Can you remind us of the events at the general store in Money, Miss., that precipitated Emmett's lynching?

CHUKWU: He was just being a child with his cousins, you know? And they went to go get some snacks. And he was someone who was a jokester and loved movies, and he saw someone who looked like a movie star that he had watched on the screen. And he said this much to himself. And then, you know, his cousins drag him out because he's breaking this code of, you know, talking to this white woman. And then, as they leave, he was playing a joke and whistled. And then, they - she, Carolyn Bryant, went for a gun. And that led to all of the customers who were all Black to run away and to try to save their lives.

MOSLEY: In life and in the film, after Emmett Till is murdered, Mamie insists that his body is brought home to Chicago from Mississippi. And when she saw it, I mean, it was mutilated beyond recognition, and she made this decision to have an open casket. And then she called on Jet magazine, who put that photo on the front cover. And we know that many families saved that cover. They framed it. They hung it on their walls as a reminder. And really, it's a reminder of Mamie's bravery and indignation. What Mamie did you call critical care. Can you explain what you mean when you say critical care?

CHUKWU: So she wanted the world to witness what happened to her child so then this can stop happening to other Black children, Black people. And so it was out of care and love that she has for Black people and Black lives and Black humanity. It was not a voyeuristic, objectifying look at her son. It was, we need to take action and come together and stop this. And I think that that is a care - a place - that's coming from a place of care and action.

MOSLEY: One striking thing about the film is that we never see the violence of Emmett being murdered. You intentionally decided not to show the brutality of what happened.

CHUKWU: Yeah. I mean, I knew that the physical violence that was inflicted upon Emmett was not a necessary or important part of the story I wanted to tell, which was that of Mamie's journey and her becoming an activist and also the love and humanity that existed between her and her child. So narratively, it wasn't necessary. And it's also horrific just to see the aftermath and then to - for everyone to be left to assume what they must have done to him.

MOSLEY: I'm really curious. Emmett's mutilated body in the film looks devastatingly similar to the photographs we've seen of it. What was the process of recreating the mutilated body? Did you work directly with the artist to create it?

CHUKWU: I did. And I have to say it was a very harrowing process because I read and reread autopsy reports of what was done to Emmett and diagrammed - looked at diagrams and carefully examined the photograph and did a little bit of research about what a body being in water for three days does - like, what that does to a body. And having those conversations with the company that made the body, starting with the mold of the actor who plays Emmett, Jalyn Hall, and this going back-and-forth as the body was being built and getting more details and making sure it's as realistic as possible - and the actors in the scene, the actors who interacted with the body, like Danielle and Sean Patrick Thomas, who plays Gene - they didn't see or touch the body until we were ready to shoot the scene.

MOSLEY: Oh, wow.

CHUKWU: And so the very first time they saw it was on camera.

MOSLEY: I mean, that is - that's so powerful to know because also in the film, we don't see Emmett's body until Mamie is ready to see the body.

CHUKWU: Yes.

MOSLEY: We instead see her face in the room from her point of view. But when she does finally look, which then allows us to look, there is a tenderness to the way you direct that moment. You bring the viewer as close as you can to seeing it from the mother's eyes. What was the process in coming up with this particular technique? And did you also use other options as you were finalizing the way that you wanted to present this really powerful scene?

CHUKWU: I was clear within myself early on in constructing my directorial vision for the film that this scene needed to be humanizing, not objectifying. And it needs to prioritize Mamie's emotional experience in seeing her son's body. And so I also knew that - and I communicated this to the crew - we were only going to shoot that scene in two takes because I didn't want to put Danielle, the actor, through that many times. So I had to be very, very precise within myself about how I wanted to shoot that. And so my cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, and I had a lot of conversations and clarity about what we wanted.

And so on the day, we found a great composition in the beginning of the scene where a table obstructs Emmett's body, and we just stay with Mamie and her emotional experience seeing her son. And I thought that that just so beautifully captures the privacy and the intimacy and the emotional subtext that I wanted to highlight in that scene. And I knew that when the camera does move in to start to see Emmett's body, Mamie is leading that. So we see his body as Mamie is going down and going up his body. And it's tender, and it's loving. And it's not - the camera doesn't take that voyeuristic lens. We're with Mamie and her son.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Chinonye Chukwu, co-writer and director of the new film "Till" about the mother of Emmett Till. Chukwu is also the writer and director of the award-winning film "Clemency." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET SONG, "MIGRATIONS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking with Chinonye Chukwu, co-writer and director of the new film "Till," a film about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who, in 1955, was lynched while visiting family in Mississippi. Chukwu is also the writer and director of the award-winning film "Clemency."

The trial of the two men accused of murdering Emmett Till - it was a media affair, in part because it was a very unusual occurrence in 1955 to have Black people testify against two white men in a segregated Mississippi. Another thing that you did, particularly with the trial scene, was that you decided not to show the verdict in the movie. This goes back to what you were talking about about us seeing things from Mamie's point of view. You decided not to show the verdict because she wasn't there for that.

CHUKWU: Exactly. I really wanted to keep the narrative through Mamie's point of view, her perspective, as much as possible. And so she left before the verdict was announced because she already knew what the verdict was going to be. And also the ending of the film is not about the verdict. You know, one of the things that I - that Dr. T.R.M. Howard - who is, in my opinion, an unsung civil rights hero. Dr. T.R.M. Howard asked Mamie, you know, during the trial when she visits Mississippi is, what is the work you're going to do regardless of the verdict? Because there's still work to be done. And we cannot put all our hopes on justice, progress and change on a verdict that's decided by - within a system that's set up against you.

And so I was thinking about that when thinking about how do I want the arc of this film to be? And it cannot end at the verdict. It's about so much more. And Mamie comes to that realization in her own kind of arc in the film. And that propels her to leave and go on to being an activist in the world because there's so much work to be done.

MOSLEY: There's a scene where Mamie is talking to her mother, who is played by Whoopi Goldberg, right before Emmett leaves for Mississippi. And in it, Mamie shares with her mother her fears about letting Emmett go down south by himself. She refers to Emmett by his nickname, Bo. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TILL")

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) We've never been apart this long.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (As Alma Carthan) He's just going to see his cousins. It's not a bad thing for him to know where he come from.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Well, Chicago is all he needs to know. I don't want him seeing himself the way those people are seen down there.

GOLDBERG: (As Alma Carthan) Those people like me.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Even you left Mississippi, Mama.

GOLDBERG: (As Alma Carthan) Mamie, Bo is growing up. You're going to have to let him go. All right. I know that face. That is the face of, Mama, mind your business, and go home. Where's my pocketbook?

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) Right here.

GOLDBERG: (As Alma Carthan) Oh, there it is. You need to get you some rest, too. Come on, baby.

DEADWYLER: (As Mamie Till-Mobley) I'll call you tomorrow.

GOLDBERG: (As Alma Carthan) All right.

MOSLEY: That was a clip from the new movie "Till," co-written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Chinonye, that fear that grips a mother of Black sons, it's a universal feeling, the fear of your child out in the world. How did you and your crew move through the emotional weight during the filming? The timing of the making of this film, it really was right on the heels of George Floyd's murder.

CHUKWU: Yeah. And I remember when I was working on the script, it was in the midst of the protests that were going on around the world. And so I definitely - there was definitely an extra weight in the writing of it for me. And I - for me - I let a lot of my feelings and emotions out in the writing of it. There were a lot of tears. There was just a lot of feelings. And so I can compartmentalize as much as I can on set, but we're still human. And so myself and the producers were very intentional about protecting the mental and emotional well-being of everybody. So we had a therapist on set who was available to the cast and crew and was just such a invaluable resource in helping us process our feelings in real time. The parents of the children - child actors were on set, and I wanted them as close as possible every day if possible. And when I talk to their kids, I talk to them as well because they're also a part of this journey.

I think about when we were shooting this scene where Emmett's abducted, the actor who plays Emmett, Jalyn, who was 14 at the time, after a take or two, he had asked if we can pause so he can get a hug from his mom. And we just dropped everything so he can get a hug from his mom. And if Jalyn would have told me, I don't want to do any more takes, then we wouldn't have done any more takes, you know? We're human beings, first and foremost. Those are some of the ways that we were really mindful of care. Also there were just some scenes I limited just to two takes because I just didn't want to go through that - put the actors through that repeatedly. And so I would tell the crew, listen. Whatever we get in these takes is what's going to be in the film, so let's just make it as great as possible. But then we got to move on.

DAVIES: Director Chinonye Chukwu, speaking with Tonya Mosley. Chukwu's new film is "Till," about the mother of Emmett Till. We'll hear more of their conversation after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER AND BOBBY HUTCHERSON'S "ISN'T THIS MY SOUND AROUND ME?")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is writer and director Chinonye Chukwu. Her new film is "Till," about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi. The film is told from the perspective of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and shows how her decisions to publicly share what happened to her son became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Chukwu also wrote and directed the 2019 film "Clemency" about a female prison warden suffering from the emotional toll of overseeing death row executions. The film won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, making Chukwu the first Black woman to win it. Chukwu is Nigerian American and grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. She spoke to FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: Chinonye, you grew up very far away from the American South in Fairbanks, Alaska.

CHUKWU: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: I can only imagine how much of an anomaly you are in some spaces here in the lower 48, being a Black woman from Alaska. I need to know, what was it like? I mean, like, really what was it like? What was your neighborhood like where you grew up? What was your high school like?

CHUKWU: So what I felt it was like in the moment versus my reflections on it now as a 37-year-old are different. You know, I appreciate it a lot more looking back. You know, I lived in what would be equivalent to the suburbs, you know, in Fairbanks, Alaska - suburbs-ish. You know, I mean, Fairbanks is a town, and that was predominantly white. But my parents, who are petroleum engineers and Nigerian immigrants - they were very intentional about, you know, finding communities with, you know, other Africans and children of immigrants. And so I was amongst that community as well.

You know, at the time, when I was a teenager in Fairbanks, I was struggling with deep depression. And that was exacerbated by my seasonal affective disorder. You know, in the winter it gets quite dark, as you can imagine. And so it was a real struggle for me and also just kind of navigating my own identity crisis as, you know, a child of Nigerian immigrants who - I would go back home to Nigeria often. And, you know, it's - when I go back to Nigeria, I'm too American. When I'm in America, I'm out of places either just by my Blackness or by my Nigerianness or, you know, amongst other African Americans, just sometimes critiquing my Blackness based on, you know, growing up in Alaska or being a child of Nigerian immigrants.

And so in the moment, as a teenager, it was a very dark time. And my depression was masked by my work. I was the president of multiple organizations in high school. I was in all the clubs. I was staying at school till 9 p.m. at times, just in after-school activities and just busying myself so I don't have to deal with that deep, penetrating feeling of sadness that I was actively avoiding. And so nobody knew. Nobody knew that I was dying inside and deeply depressed and confused and insecure because on the outside I was an overachiever.

MOSLEY: When did this revelation come to you and to others that you were depressed? You said that nobody really knew.

CHUKWU: So I had a moment when I was 14 where I almost took my own life. And I remember it like it was yesterday. And I - there was a voice. And I just wanted the pain to stop, essentially. I just - it was the middle of the night. I was sobbing. I just wanted the pain to stop. And there was a small voice in my head that just said, give it one more day. Whatever happens tomorrow, OK. But just give it one more day. And I kept hearing that voice until I decided maybe there's a reason for me to stay alive. And I was still depressed, but I was starting to lean into living a bit more.

And by the time I got to college, I decided enough was enough. I need to really be intentional about what living looks like, what joy looks like, and to really get a hold of the - and that requires getting a hold of the depression and really confronting myself in a way that I haven't before. And it wasn't until maybe possibly like my late 20s that I really started openly talking about it with my close friends and what that feeling was like, and then started talking - sharing that with other people more publicly. So there is a stigma attached to being depressed or that kind of journey.

MOSLEY: The other thing that I read, that at least when you were younger, you would create your own worlds through writing. You dreamed in scenes. Do you remember some of the fantasies that you created?

CHUKWU: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when I was 13, I was obsessed with Julia Roberts because that was when she had, like, the string of rom-coms, you know, like "Runaway Bride," "Notting Hill," "My Best Friend's Wedding." I was obsessed, OK? And I would rewrite those films with either me as the protagonist or, like, another Black girl who looked like me as a protagonist. And I was also at that time when I was, like, coming into my feelings about boys and just all of that. And so I was living this kind of, like, fantasy life through Julia Roberts movies. And I remember rewriting them in my green journal at 13 years old and storyboarding some of the scenes. Yeah. You know, I listened - I remember in college, I listened to a lot of Nina Simone, and I got a lot of inspiration listening to some Nina Simone, writing different scenes and scripts as well. But it was escape, you know, especially as a child. It was escape. It was a way for me to get outside of myself and the dark space I was in and just imagine worlds and possibilities beyond Fairbanks, Alaska.

MOSLEY: Yeah. You went to DePauw University in Indiana for undergrad and then film school at Temple University in Philly. Philly was a very important place for you. You also taught third grade, and you call that the single most life-changing experience you've ever had. And I'm wondering what made it so meaningful.

CHUKWU: So when I was in grad school, my first year, I was broke and needed money. And sadly, the easiest job for me to get at the time was assisting a third-grade teacher. And then that would lead to me kind of having my own section of students, teaching them literacy. And so I started teaching because of money. I never, ever thought I would be interested in it. But I needed money. And that experience, the first couple of months, was incredibly difficult. And it was difficult because the students were challenging (laughter). And I didn't know what I was doing (laughter). And I think they knew that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHUKWU: But then something happened. I remember there was one day in particular early on when I started teaching when there were, like, one or two Black girls who were just staring at me. And then they started kind of mimicking some of my movements. And I just had this light bulb moment. I was like, oh, they're seeing themselves in me. And that was the time I realized that - I really understood, oh, I'm living for more than just myself. And it just really expanded me when I had that revelation. And once, I think, the students started trusting me more, and I just kind of leaned into their humanities and just, you know, allowed myself to just figure it out day by day, we started to bond. And I really felt a connection to them and caught the teaching bug, so to speak.

I continued teaching at Ferguson for, I believe, a year and a half. And then I started teaching at the collegiate level. And I was a college professor for 10 years after that. And it's the most life-changing thing I've done, teaching. It expanded my capacity for empathy and compassion. It matured me very quickly (laughter). It, once again, reminded me I'm living for more than just myself. And teaching at the collegiate level especially has made me the - has helped to make me the filmmaker I am.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Chinonye Chukwu, co-writer and director of the new film "Till", about the mother of Emmett Till. Chukwu is also the writer and director of the award-winning film "Clemency." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WINDOW")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today I'm talking with Chinonye Chukwu, co-writer and director of the new film "Till", a film about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who in 1955 was lynched while visiting family in Mississippi. Chukwu is also the writer and director of the award-winning film "Clemency."

I want to talk about your 2019 film "Clemency," which follows the lives of a prison warden, played by Alfre Woodard, and a death row inmate, played by Aldis Hodge. The inspiration for this film came after you read a book about Troy Davis, a Black man from Georgia who was convicted and then executed in 2011 for the murder of a police officer despite evidence that he might be innocent. You spent five years speaking with incarcerated people on death row for this film. I'm just curious. What was something that you learned from them that you hadn't known before?

CHUKWU: Well, I had the idea for "Clemency" when the protests against Troy Davis' execution were building. And amongst those who were protesting was a group of wardens who had, you know, collectively overseen hundreds of executions and were publicly speaking from their experience of having done that kind of work, and the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who are tasked to do that work. And that led me to do a very, very deep, multi-year dive into this world of the carceral system in America. And I spoke with many people who were incarcerated. I spoke with some people who were on death row. I talked with many wardens and different correction officials and many lawyers. And it also led me to create a film program inside a women's prison in Ohio called Pens to Pictures, where I worked with women who were incarcerated in writing and directing short films.

MOSLEY: I can imagine that was also a life-changing experience for you, to be working in a women's prison and seeing their point of view through filmmaking.

CHUKWU: Yes. I mean, it was an incredible experience. I mean, I had no idea how it was going to be done. I didn't know if it could be done. But after I'd volunteered on several clemency cases that were for women who were incarcerated at the prison that I ended up creating Pens to Pictures in - and so my constant presence there helped, you know, give me permission to bring in film equipment, to bring in, you know, volunteers and students of mine to help teach the classes and work with the ladies who were in the program. And it was a enriching communal experience for everyone involved. And I was so happy that I was able to include my students from the university I was teaching at at the time in the program. And it was just a very communal experience where we really saw each other as people, as human beings, and not as, you know, a number or as a felon.

MOSLEY: What did you learn about the day-to-day life on death row or maybe the themes you wanted to explore as you were writing "Clemency"?

CHUKWU: Time means something different when you are in prison. And it means something different for the incarcerated. I think it means something different for the people who work there. It means something different for the families and community of those who are incarcerated. In some ways, it stops and stands still. And then it means something different when you know you'll - in 12 hours, you're about to die. And, you know, the times when I was volunteering on clemency cases, I had to spend a lot of time in the prison or I was teaching in the prisons. You know, you don't have any of your technology with you.

And it's - and you're really - I - there were definitely times I really felt the isolation and the claustrophobia of that space. And I have so much privilege, and I'm not incarcerated, etc., etc. And so it really made me empathize with the many people who can't leave that space and how that incarceration also, in some ways, imprisons the mind of the warden and imprisons the mind of the workers as well. And so I wanted to capture that cinematically in "Clemency."

MOSLEY: I'm really fascinated about the lessons you learned from "Alaskaland" to writing and directing "Clemency" because that growth - I mean, we definitely see it in these two films. They're both using visual and structural storytelling devices that center Black women's experiences in ways that we haven't really seen before. That particular point, how does it feel to reach this level of success on your own terms?

CHUKWU: It is exciting, exhilarating and terrifying. I am proud of myself for still being rooted in my joy and in my peace, in my worth, in my own power. I'm so thankful that I have lived - I had lived a full life before getting to this point, and so I'm clear about what living really means and what really matters to me. I do feel like my films, particularly "Till" and "Clemency" - it expands the narrative possibilities of Black women on screen. And it's terrifying because, in some ways, that just - it's something that's subversive and that's different. And that could be received in a lot of different ways. And I'm really putting myself out there in that way. And so that's the kind of scary part.

But change or subversion or expansion tends to come with a bit of fear. And it's not about whether or not you feel that fear, but it's how you move forward in spite of it. And so I'm trying to be present in the moment and also thinking about the stories I want to tell in the future and making sure that anything that I make moving forward, I have to be passionate about it and excited about it. And I don't want that relationship that I have to the work to change.

MOSLEY: You mentioned some of your future work. Is there anything that you're working on that you can share with us?

CHUKWU: I'm not going to share specifics, but I am definitely not going to do a serious drama for my next film (laughter). Like, I need some levity. You know, don't be surprised if my next film's a rom-com (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yeah. Take us back to Julia Roberts.

CHUKWU: Taking it, taking it (ph).

MOSLEY: A Black protagonist Julia Roberts (laughter).

CHUKWU: Listen. I have - my mind's already going with story ideas for that one. But I never want to get to the point where I feel like I've reached the peak of the craft that I'm in. And so the next films that I do - they are going to be different than what I've done because I want to expand. And I want to play with - in different genres. I want to play in bigger worlds and bigger plot lines and tones and styles, and there are certain directorial techniques I really want to play with and explore. And so all of that is part of what is in my mind as I'm thinking about what I want to do next.

MOSLEY: Chinonye Chukwu, thank you so much for this conversation.

CHUKWU: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking with you. And thank you for the really thoughtful, insightful questions.

DAVIES: Chinonye Chukwu's new film "Till" about the mother of Emmett Till is in theaters now. She spoke to FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Revolutionary," Stacy Schiff's new biography of Samuel Adams. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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