Screenwriter Michael JP Reilly, co-writers craft ‘a weapon for good’ in the film ‘Till’

Michael JP Reilly

This past February, the movie “Till” was screened at the White House for President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and their guests. Among the team that brought the powerful true story of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to the president’s home that evening was the 42-year-old screenwriter and producer Michael JP Reilly, formerly of Massachusetts and the son of local Boston Irish luminary William “Bill” Reilly.

Michael Reilly co-penned the script with Chinonye Chukwu, the film’s acclaimed director, and Keith Beauchamp, whose tireless research of the case over 27 years led not only to a deep friendship with Mamie Till-Mobley, but also to the reopening of the Till murder investigation by the US Justice Department in 2004. Emmett Till’s late cousin, Simeon Wright, an eyewitness to the tragic events, served as a consultant to the film.

Reilly credits his producing partners Barbara Broccoli (the James Bond franchise), Whoopi Goldberg (“The Color Purple” and “Sister Act”), Frederick Zollo (“Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi”), and the bold leadership of Alana Mayo of Orion Studios, as being instrumental in getting “Till” made.

The movie presents the infamous kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely claimed he had accosted her. Rather than present the events in their gruesome detail from multiple viewpoints, the script tells the story through the eyes and emotions of Mamie Till-Mobley. The writers and director deftly and seamlessly reveals Mamie’s journey from shattered parent to Civil Rights activist. The scene in the funeral home where seeing her son’s disfigured body evokes guttural screams and moans followed by her decision to force America to see photos of him in an open coffin is as memorable as anything audiences will ever experience.

“You’re not just my boy anymore,” she whispers to him at the open-casket funeral.

The stellar cast is led by Danielle Deadwyler, whose stunning turn as Mamie drives the film. Jalyn Hall shines as Emmett Till, as does Whoopi Goldberg, a key figure in getting the project to the screen, as Emmett’s grandmother.

In “Till,” Chukwu, Beauchamp, and Reilly have created a searing and intimate portrait of tragedy, grief, and triumph through the eyes of Mamie Till-Mobley. The fact that Danielle Deadwyler’s magnificent portrayal of Mamie did not earn an Oscar nomination is in itself disturbing.

Michael Reilly spoke recently via phone with Boston Irish Magazine.

BIM. In many ways, the metamorphosis in the movie seems to owe much to Keith Beauchamp’s efforts over decades.
Reilly: Keith is the foremost authority on Emmett Till. He spent nearly 30 years researching every aspect of the murder case and became a dear friend of Mamie Till-Mobley. She urged him to “Get mine and my son’s story on screen.”

BIM. Bringing actual history to the screen can be daunting. One misstep or too much creative license can spark criticism.”
Reilly: Indeed. Most of the film relates the actual history, the actual case. However, to punctuate critical themes for the majority of the audience who are not completely familiar with the Till case, there are a few scenes of necessary dramatic invention, such as the riverbank scene with Mamie and Moses Wright and the visit by Mamie to the town of Money, Mississippi. That said, the film is an extremely accurate work.

BIM: How would you describe the career arc that brought you to “Till”?
Reilly: In becoming a screenwriter, my trajectory at first was doing anything but. I worked in production for a few years, but I always loved the art of telling a story. Eventually, I decided it was time to get started writing. That took courage and some seven years to develop from an intermediate to a professional.”

BIM: What screenplays/films do you believe have impacted, and in some way shaped, your own work?
Reilly: “Network” and Spike Lee’s “X” come immediately to mind. I’ve always gravitated toward drama and political themes. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” was hugely influential for me.

BIM: What do you believe that viewers will take away from “Till”?
Reilly: One of the most important goals of the film was to rip off the mask of racial hatred. I view the film as a weapon for good.

Michael JP Reilly is currently on strike with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) against film, television, and streaming studios in pursuit of a fair and equitable contract.