University professor's book to be adapted into film


Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illini

Chris Benson, professor in Media and award-winning author, stands in his office surrounded by books, including a copy of his own, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.”

By Atoosa Sayeh

The book tells the story of black Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was kidnapped and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 by two white men after reportedly whistling at a white woman.

The book is co-written by Benson and Emmett Till’s late mother Mamie Till-Mobley and tells the story of Emmett Till from her perspective.

“Our plan was always to document the story of Emmett Till and the connection of his 1955 lynching in Mississippi with the spark of the Civil Rights Movement in America and then to turn that book into a feature film,” Benson said. “So we’re basically fulfilling the commitment we made to Mamie Till-Mobley back in 2002.”

Till-Mobley died in 2003 and was not able to see the finished project that was being made in honor of her son. Benson said it was a wonderful experience to meet Till-Mobley and develop a level of trust with her.

“The most precious thing she had left was the legacy of her story, which she shared with multiple people,” Benson said. “She was always disappointed that she had lived nearly 50 years after Emmett’s death and never had the chance to record her story, so she was overjoyed to have that opportunity.”

The film will include Till-Mobley’s interior dialogue as she is telling the story.

Benson said Champaign’s Shatterglass Studios set the project in motion because they were looking to do a feature film in the region.

“We met up with (Benson), and he mentioned he’d written a story about Emmett Till,” said Brett Hays, co-owner of Statterglass Studios. “We knew we wanted to work with him because (of) how incredible his project sounded, and we wanted to help create it.”

Luke Boyce, a filmmaker at Shatterglass Studios, said they wanted to help produce the film because the story hasn’t been told in this format before.

“Civil rights stories are not a very popular thing for Hollywood to make, which is a shame because these are stories that deal with human courage,” Boyce said. “ I think Emmett’s story is a powerful human interest story that needs to be told.”

Benson will be a co-writer for the film and will be a producer alongside Hays and Boyce. Chaz Ebert will be an executive producer.

“We’re excited about the opportunity not only to share this important historical story but also to help people understand the context of racial relations in America,” Benson said. “Not only is it a historical matter, but also in the contemporary moment, (it’s important) to have a deeper understanding of why we’re experiencing some of the tensions we’re experiencing now.”

Benson said with Emmett Till, we see parallels between things that happened 60 years ago and what we see now.

“This is important because the film will help people understand more of the story; it will reach a wider audience than the book can reach,” Benson said. “And we hope it will also be transformative for the public, so we have great expectations for the story.”

Filming will start next year, and location shots will be filmed in Mississippi, Chicago and central Illinois.

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Luke Boyce is directing this film. He in fact directs for the film studio, but is not directing this film. The Daily Illini regrets the error.