If you have any sense of U.S. history, you’ll watch Till with an impending sense of doom. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago that was lynched in a small Mississippi town while visiting his cousins the summer of 1955, an incident that exploded in the media and galvanized the civil rights movement. But director Chinonye Chukwu makes it clear from the start that the film will not focus on the violence, but more on the aftermath through the eyes of Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley. But I’ll tell you, that doesn’t make the film any easier to watch.
In a star-making, sure-bet Oscar-nominated performance, Danielle Deadwyler plays Mamie, a devoted single mom to her only child. She is the type of mom whose eyes well up while singing along with her son to a sappy love song, as he is obviously the light of her life. And as played by Jalyn Hall, he IS a light. A clown and a charmer, he is dapper in his nice suit that she makes him wear for the train ride south. It’s no accident, I’m sure, that when the film focuses on the two of them that the cinematography, costumes, and set design are awash in sunny yellow tones.
But even thought Emmett’s mother and cousins warn him in no uncertain terms that things are different in the South, that black folks absolutely have to be careful around whites, he slips up. After buying some candy from Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white clerk at the local market, he whistles at her (“You look like a movie star!”). Immediately, all within earshot know that there has been an unacceptable boundary crossed. A couple days after, Emmett is kidnapped right from his relatives’ home by white men, and his mangled and violently disfigured body is found later in a river.
After hearing in advance about Deadwyler’s remarkable performance, I knew it was just a matter of waiting for her Oscar moment. Mamie’s shock at the news of her son’s murder is quiet and restrained–she is portrayed with a remarkable calm and dignity. But when Emmett’s casket is unloaded at the Chicago station, that is when Mamie breaks (and you will, too). The camera had stayed away from the violence as it happened, but just like when Mamie decides to hold an open-casket funeral and invite the media, the film wants to make sure you, too, can’t look away from the tragedy. The boy’s grotesquely mutilated body is unbearable to see, and that is the whole point. The shock still resonates today.
The rest of Till follows a linear biopic style, where Mamie insists on going to Mississippi (under protective guidance from the NAACP) to make sure that her son’s memory is not lost in the media circus, and culminates, as would be expected, in the frustrating, sensational courtroom trial. Mamie wants to see for herself the town and people that could have done this to her son. Particularly moving is a scene where she confronts her uncle Preacher (John Douglas Thompson), who handed over her son to the white men in a can’t-win situation. Preacher’s shame is overwhelming, while at the same time he knows that the alternative would have had him and his whole family killed. There are no winners in this circle of violence.
Till treads carefully and respectfully, and honestly I thought the film itself could have used some more flair. But it still serves as a solid, moving portrayal of a regular woman taking her personal tragedy and using that pain for good. It is the type of movie that will make you want to fill in the blanks afterwards, to learn more about this era of the movement by hopping on the internet as soon as you finish the film (like I did). Till is a sincere tribute to Mamie Till-Mobley’s fight for her son’s legacy, a legacy that (it’s clear in the closing credits) continues to have reverberations in the fight for civil rights.