From ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Till’: Confronting Racism in the White House Screening Room

“There is a complete parallel between what happened to our son and the story of Emmett Till,” said Mr. Collins, who could not attend the event. “It’s a continuum of the same things that have been happening for decades, if not centuries, in this nation.”

“We’re living through it,” said Mr. Collins, who helps lead the 2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III Foundation, an organization that provides mentoring and scholarships to college students.

Courtney R. Baker, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who focuses on visual culture and Black life, said Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, knew well the power of visual media: She demanded that her son’s funeral have an open coffin so the world could see what had happened to him at the hands of white supremacists. 

Before the lights went down on Thursday, more than 100 mostly Black historians, civil rights leaders, celebrities and members of Congress walked through the East Room sharing hugs and waves of greeting. Some sat together laughing and enjoying popcorn. Representative Al Green, Democrat of Texas, waved to those seated in the back room and yelled that he enjoyed meeting new people. Whoopi Goldberg entered the room shortly before Mr. Biden.

The president, who signed a bill last year making lynching a federal crime — explicitly criminalizing an act that has come to symbolize the history of racism in the United States — said introducing the film was “maybe the greatest honor I’ve had” since he became president.

But before he did, he noticed a group of high school students from Illinois and Mississippi in the first two rows of seats, just in front of the wide movie screen. The students, dressed in sharp dresses and bright suits — some sporting crisp temp fade haircuts — held their phones up steady as Mr. Biden spoke.

“Are you students?” he asked. Yes, they all answered gleefully.

“Welcome to the White House,” the president said.

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