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Danielle Deadwyler Offers a Mesmerizing Performance in the Movie ‘Till’

February 2023

Danielle DeadwylerShe is the quintessential Spelman academic and Atlanta activist who has now emerged as an accomplished actor. Meet Danielle Deadwyler, C’2004, who gives a riveting performance in her latest film as unsung heroine, Mamie Till-Mobley. Mamie is the heartbeat of Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” about the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose gruesome murder in Mississippi in 1955 by White supremacists was pivotal to the start of the civil rights movement.

Deadwyler, who has already received a Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Lead Performance, explained about accepting the role: “I got a personal history; I have a personal legacy with civil rights, and I have the naive gall to say yes.”

Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, taught Deadwyler African American studies at Spelman and marvels: “I taught this student and now they’re in this historical cinematic piece,” he tweeted. “We likely covered the Emmett Till murder in class.”

He adds: “It’s amazing to see how her deep interest and her acting career have intersected.”

The film chronicles the true story of Till- Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her executed son. It is a troubling portrayal.

“I learned to step into a certain kind of courage,” said Deadwyler during an interview. “I didn’t want to do it because you know that it’s a painful thing. It’s going to do something to you. It truly hurts. It hurts emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, and yet you find different elements of who you are. [That’s] what Mamie found.”

Deadwyler is an Atlanta native who was active in the civil rights movement at an early age. She worked with the SCLC Youth Development Program, volunteered with National SCLC, and attended Cascade United Methodist Church where the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery was pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Spelman Alumna Danielle Deadwyler“I’m deep in the game in Atlanta,” she said. “I’m just deeply rooted in the city and every mirroring of me is Atlanta.”

Former SCLC national board member and first national director for Youth and Students Affairs, Brenda Davenport, was Deadwyler’s mentor.

“It is exciting to see her on the big screen and know something was said or presented to her while an SCLC youth that was embedded deep in her spirit. God blessed her with the role of Mother Mamie Till, a shero in our civil rights struggle for justice,” said Davenport.

“I am grateful to have known Mrs. Mamie Till, and I feel without a doubt she would be proud of our Danielle’s performance. It does not yet appear all that is in store for such a beautiful, powerful and talented spirit.” 

Whoever she is and whatever she has become today is because of Spelman, Deadwyler opined. She was a history major who wanted to blend arts and education. 

“I was an academic, so I was preparing myself to do that. But you know art had other plans,” she laughed.

Spelman Alumna Danielle Deadwyler“Spelman had art pulsating continuously amid me being hyper-educated in a richer, deeper sense of what it meant to be Black in America, and to be Black in the diaspora. My closest friends still to this day are my Spelman sisters.”

That’s why Deadwyler says her Spelman experience was a “deeply special” one, an uplifting and nurturing one. “There was a tradition and an opportunity for experimentalism and uniqueness in that experience that you just can’t get anywhere else,” she explained. “I just knew I wanted to be with women who were like me and who were trying to figure it out through a similar experience as myself, so going to Spelman isn’t going to a college or university, it’s going family.”

Deadwyler credits Spelman professors such as Drs. Marjorie Ganz, Beverly Guy Sheftall and Kathleen Phillips-Lewis for her success and for “sharpening my mind.”

“She has been steadily reaching higher and higher heights, setting new goals for herself and surpassing each one of them,” said Phillips-Lewis, Ph.D., division chair for the Humanities.

“Whatever Danielle has tackled, she gives it 200-plus percent. Her work ethic is mind-boggling, and she strives for perfection, settling for no less than the best. Her work shows deep preparation, intense study and research. Danielle does not only portray the character, she becomes the character. This is only the beginning for her.”

“Danielle was a wonderful young scholar activist whom I enjoyed having as a student,” added Margery A. Ganz, Ph.D., professor emerita of history. “This role has enabled her to fuse her interests in American history and acting with spectacular results.”

Beverly Guy-Sheftall is a Black feminist scholar, writer, editor and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Spelman. She calls Deadwyler a true Spelman woman.

“Danielle has made a choice to change the world and to chart a pathway ahead for young Black women who have wrestled the rickety roads of life, have had few opportunities, or were urged to stay in their place. These women can now walk in her doorstep, and like Danielle, rise up and grab a firm hold on courage of their convictions [and] a dogged determination to succeed,” said Guy-Sheftall.

DanielleD2“I am always delighted when my former students embrace feminist values and carry with them the lessons of our women’s studies classes — that women’s lives matter even if they are forgotten or minimized throughout history,” she continued. “Danielle understood at a deep level that we should never forget the long legacy of resistance that Black women, in particular, have demonstrated, even in the most challenging circumstances. Her brilliant portrayal of Emmett Till’s mother brings back precious memories of Danielle, and I look forward to her extraordinary film career in the coming decades.”

From Deadwyler’s degree in history from Spelman to her master’s from Columbia University; from local theater to one-woman shows; from playing Quita Maxwell, Quincy’s fierce, fearless and passionate sister in “The Haves and the Have Nots,” to her portrayal of tough-as-nails Cuffee in “The Harder They Fall” — this lead role as Mamie Till in “Till” her former professors agree, brings together her love for history, storytelling and teaching.

Like Mamie Till-Mobley did as she stepped into the role as a courageous advocate for her son, Deadwyler is bravely entering a role that is putting her under a “scary” bright light “After tragedy struck, [Mamie] had to go through that [scary light] in order to become an extraordinary person. She realized, and, in her words: ‘She didn’t want to be a nobody anymore,’ and I think that is where I am. I think it’s a scary thing to step into the world in a big light like this. And I guess I’m not living in the dark anymore,” explained Deadwyler, who has 35 acting credits and three producer credits.

DanielleD1“I don’t get to quietly go into the night, right?” she continued. “Like there are some roles where you can take the role and just keep going about life. I don’t get to do that anymore because so many people know this, and so many people are going to be made aware and the possibilities are endless.

MAYNARD EATON is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning TV reporter who is managing editor of the SCLC National Magazine and executive editor of “The Maynard Report” and “Newsmakers Live/Journal.” He is also president of The Eaton Media Group and a journalism professor at Hampton University.

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