AP Breakthrough Entertainer: Danielle Deadwyler goes all in

Jake Coyle
Film writer and critic
jakecoyleAPjcoyle@ap.org
December 16, 2022 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — Just the idea of playing Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, was enough to make Danielle Deadwyler pause to consider the toll such a role might take.

“You go: What’s going to happen to me?” Deadwyler says. “What are the steps that you need to take to make sure you can do this to the best of your ability and come out on the other side where you still got all your ABCs and your chemical dynamics together?”

Playing Till-Mobley meant immersing herself in one of the ugliest chapters of American history, when the 14-year-old Till was lynched in 1955 Mississippi. Just the scene Deadwyler would audition with — when Mamie first sees her son’s brutalized corpse — was wrenching. On Deadwyler’s shoulders would lie the responsibility of history, of honoring Till-Mobley and of reflecting a grief known to generations of Black mothers. Deadwyler gathered her resolve.

“I wanted to be the person to bear the weight,” Deadwyler says.

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In Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” Deadwyler gives one of the most powerful and intensely expressive performances of the year, charting Till-Mobley’s profound metamorphosis into civil-rights leader. Deadwyler, herself, is undergoing a transformation. In her first lead role in a film, the 40-year-old Deadwyler has come through the other side of playing Mamie with her equilibrium intact but some changes to those internal “dynamics.” For her, there will be before, and after, “Till.”

“Life is just different,” says Deadwyler. “It’s learning a new selfhood. Art is self-revelation.”

Deadwyler has been making her mark for several years in series like “Station Eleven” and “Atlanta,” and in the Western “The Harder They Fall.” But her performance as Mamie — a portrait of private grief and public awakening — has catapulted her fame. It’s made Deadwyler a top contender for best actress at the Academy Awards, and an easy choice to be among The Associated Press’ Breakthrough Entertainers of 2022.

Deadwyler, who until recently was filming the Jaume Collet-Serra thiller “Carry On” in Atlanta, has been too busy to soak it up much. When she won for best lead performance last month at the Gotham Awards, Chukwu accepted the prize for her. But with a string of nominations, there are other award shows looming for Deadwyler.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Deadwyler says. “I’ll show up and try to look cute.”

Chukwu had spent months searching for an actor to play Mamie before Deadwyler’s self-taped audition blew her away.

“I feel like a lot of us have been sleeping on her incredible talent,” says Chukwu. “I hope that this film can help a hell of a lot more people see the brilliance that’s always existed.”

Deadwyler, who grew up in Atlanta, immediately recognized in Till-Mobley’s story things to identify with, as a mother and as, she says, “a child of the civil rights legacy.” She was raised in the Cascade United Methodist Church and was a student volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization co-founded by Martin Luther King Jr. “I’ve known this story my whole life,” she says.

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But getting into the interior of Till-Mobley was a learning process, even if some aspects of the character were painfully familiar. The film begins with Till-Mobley’s apparent trepidation at sending her son — a sunny, confident young man — into the ’50s South.

“I have a son who’s soon to be 13 years old. I’ve had to have the same conversations that Mamie has had to have, not wanting to take away the lightness or the light of who they are,” says Deadwyler. “So many Black mothers are having that conversation. Black parents in general are reckoning with how to empower our children and admonish them, keep them buoyant and free and yet deeply aware.”

While shooting “Till,” Chukwu found that so much of the drama could be told in Deadwyler’ eyes and face. So she would strip down scenes. When Till-Mobley memorably takes the stand in her son’s Mississippi trial, the camera stays rooted to Deadwyler.

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“After one take, my cinematographer and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Damn. We might not need everything else because Danielle is so captivating in communicating all the beats, all of the emotional tension,’” says Chukwu. “It can be its own act of resistance in who you decide to put the camera in front of and who you decide not to put the camera in front of.”

After shooting “Till,” Deadwyler needed a month of rest, therapy and acupuncture to rehabilitate. “I had to rebuild,” she says. “Make new choices.”

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But she’s found that discussing the film, heavy as its issues are, has also been healing. One of Till-Mobley’s most important decisions was to allow Till’s maimed body to be photographed in an open casket, images that captured the barbarism of American racial injustice and stoked the civil-rights movement. “They had to see what I had seen,” Till-Mobley wrote in her 2003 memoir. “The whole nation had to bear witness.”

“It’s a joy to talk about it because then I get a release. That’s what Mamie said. She said talking about Emmett, talking about her experience was healing for her,” says Deadwyler. “So she did it as much as she could. She did it until the day she died. She wanted to be not the only person talking about it.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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For more on AP’s 2022 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, please visit: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers