THE STORY OF EMMETT TILL, a 14-year-old boy who journeyed to the racist south of Mississipi, USA in 1955 for summer vacation and was later lynched for allegedly flirting with a woman, has been told countless times over.
Who could forget the images of Till’s battered and mutilated body laying in a casket while his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley looked on, her face twisted in agony? The lynching has been the subject of documentaries, news stories and literature and been recognized as a major catalyst in the US Civil Rights movement.
Now for the first time, a reverent and joyful retelling of the story has been produced, starring a Vincentian actor.
Gem Marc Collins, born to Vincentian parents Garton Collins and Hesbon Griffin-Collins, formerly of San Souci, St Vincent, plays Wheeler Parker Junior, the cousin of Emmett, in the recently released historical drama ‘Till’.
Executive Producer,Whoopi Goldberg plays Emmett’s grandmother, Danielle Deadwyler plays Mamie, and Jalyn Hall takes on the role of Emmett.
Marc, a student of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, sat for a virtual interview with SEARCHLIGHT ahead of the film’s official release at the end of October. He recounts his introduction to acting in a school play and nailing the role despite not having learned his lines.
“I felt like I was outside of the world when I was acting on that stage and since that at [age] 13 I said I want to keep doing this.”
When his agent informed Marc of the audition call, he said he immediately dived into researching Emmett’s story and watching interviews with Wheeler Parker Junior so that he could bring “the best Marc” to the audition.
He got the part and when shooting began, Marc admits the magnitude of the story the producers were attempting to tell was intimidating for him. He made sure to start each day on set with a prayer asking for strength to “honour Wheeler Parker Junior”.
“I did all of that because I was very nervous, I was very afraid to go out there and not tell the story the best that I can.”
The most anticipated and harrowing moment of ‘Till’, will no doubt be the scene where Emmett’s body is displayed at the funeral service. Many were able to witness first-hand the violence Emmett suffered before his death only because his mother broke open the sealed casket despite objections.
Marc describes this day on set as a difficult one for the lead as well as background characters.
“… when they [actors] saw the body, some of them almost threw up. I think one lady almost passed out just because it reminded her so much of what she saw when she was a kid and she couldn’t believe that she was seeing it again and it looked so real.”
Marc explains on-set counselling was provided during the shoot to help actors manage the emotionally-charged story.
The real life story of Emmett Till is a sad tale with an even more melancholy ending considering that in August this year, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict the white woman whose accusation was the reason for the black teen’s lynching.
However, Marc says Director, Chinonye Chukwu handled the film with compassionate hands, choosing not to depict on-screen violence against black people and highlighting the pleasant moments Emmett shared with his cousins.
“We ended on a joyful note so we were all able to leave happy and with new friendships and on a great note to say we will see each other again and we can’t wait to tell more stories like this, where it didn’t end in defeat or sorrow.”
Marc says he wants to “tell more stories like Till” in his acting career and he hopes the release of the film brings “more justice and empathy in the world”.
Marc encouraged Vincentian creatives who are interested in landing a spot on the big stage to, “Keep God first always. Make your own content and it will blow up. Don’t give up. I would love to help you and give you tips.”
Marc’s next big project is a Netflix series called ‘A Man in Full’ which is set to be aired in 2023.