Mill Valley Film Festival honors female director's film on Emmett Till

The Mill Valley Film Festival is celebrating its 45th year this week, and Tuesday night they rolled out the red carpet for the director of their centerpiece feature, a film called "Till" after Emmett Till. 

Till was the teenager who was brutally murdered in the 1950s, leading to outrage that helped spark the civil rights movement.

The director Chinonye Chukwu says the film, at its core, is a story of Mamie Till and a mother's love for her child.

"Without Mamie, the world would not know who Emmett Till was," said Chukwu.

The story of the Chicago teenager's life and death is a part of our American history that Chukwu wants to be etched in our memories and in our hearts.

"There was so much of the story that I didn't know. And I think there's going to be so much that audiences don't know," said Chukwu.

Chukwu's film keeps a focus on Mamie Till, showing her hesitation and concern as her 14-year-old son heads south to visit relatives in Mississippi.

It follows her grief through his agonizing disappearance, his brutal torture and death in 1955, and the trial by an all-white jury that acquitted two white men.

SEE ALSO: Emmett Till murder: Grand jury declines to indict woman whose accusation incited Black teen's lynching

It also shows her determination, deciding to have his casket open at the funeral, so the world could see her son's mutilated face.

"Black women are so often erased from the screen. We're so often erased from history and the present. We're so often erased from stories involving movement-building and civil rights," said Chukwu.

This film presented an opportunity, Chukwu says, to shine a light on Mamie Till's courage and give her a place in our history.

"I didn't know much about Mamie and who she was as a person, and so I learned so much through the research, through forming my own relationships with the TIll family," said Chukwu, "That has been a really profound, profound journey for me."

It's those profound journeys, that the Mill Valley Film Festival hope to help more women and minorities feel empowered to pursue and share on the big screen.

"We're well above 50/50 in terms of women directors," said Mark Fishkin, founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival & California Film Institute.

Fishkin who founded the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1978 and says their Mind the Gap pledge and awards aim for gender equity.

He says his hope is to help people bridge these troubling times by drawing us closer to each other through films.

"It creates this empathy and personal feeling," said Fishkin, "It allows you to put yourself in someone else's shoes and that's what we need more than ever. "

Chukwu closes "Till" with a reminder that our past is also our present, adding a reference to the passage of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act of 2022.

"I hope audiences walk away with the belief, with this knowing that they can still contribute to keep us moving us forward," said Chukwu, "I hope they feel hope. I hope they feel a sense of power and self-empowerment as well as the pain and anger."

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or