Growing up in Texas in the late 1900s, I wasn’t taught anything about Emmett Till. Since then, of course, I’ve heard about him. Till’s name has graced the overdue federal lynching this year, and his tragic fate has inspired plays and films, including the Oscar-nominated 2018 short My Nephew Emmett and now a stunning new feature from Chinonye Chukwu, starring Alfre Woodard of her bestowed major roles in the 2019 Sundance winner Clemency.
Till’s story — that of a 14-year-old black Chicago boy who was kidnapped and lynched in the middle of the night while visiting family in Mississippi — was omitted from my Southern school for possible racial reasons, although I suspect that’s the Fall had as much to do with the “big man” bias in Western culture. History as a field of study celebrates the achievements of heroic individuals. Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks. These names were all taught. But Emmett Till was a kid whose murder shook the American civil rights movement, and it took a different mindset – a la Say Their Names campaign or Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station – to position the victims in the public mind.
With “Till”, Chukwu dares something both intellectually and emotionally bold with the death of the boy: First, she banishes the brutality from the screen. “Till” doesn’t attempt to dramatize what white men Roy Bryant and John William did to Milam Emmett, and it only nominally attempts to envision the interaction between the boy and shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) that gives them “cause” gave own bigoted logic, for such lawless vigilantism. More importantly, Chukwu turns this tragedy into a heroic story by focusing on Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler). To the extent that historians acknowledge people in fact, Mamie rose to the occasion and took on the role of a great woman.
To get there, she first had to endure the unthinkable and send her son south to Mississippi, confident that in two weeks the boy would return alive. What came back was his corpse instead. In his few scenes, child actor Jalyn Hall embodies the same fun-loving, promising spirit that family portraits embody. Deadwyler, on the other hand, makes Mamie’s love real and her grief understandable. No mother should live to see what she did, and no one would blame her for wanting to bury him as discreetly as possible. But Mamie made a different decision. She arranged for Emmett’s shockingly disfigured body to be photographed, and she insisted that Emmett be given a public funeral with the coffin left open for maximum visibility.
In a way, history happened to Emmett. But Mamie took on this tragedy. She traveled to Money, Miss., and testified at the trial of Bryant and Milam, knowing how rare it was for white men to be convicted of such crimes in the South. She also knew how powerful a mother’s words would be in this case. When Mamie takes a stand in the film, Chukwu turns the camera on Deadwyler and witnesses every time a skeptical or insensitive question makes her flinch – like the lashes on Lupita Nyong’o’s back in 12 Years a Slave. It’s a formally austere choice in an otherwise dynamic style piece, defined in part by its bold fabric and wallpaper choices (perhaps the influence of “If Beale Street Could Talk”).
Under cross-examination, defense attorneys try to question whether the body was actually her son, then insinuate that two life insurance policies she had taken out in his name prompted them to declare him dead. The treatment amounts to a new kind of trauma, but what Deadwyler shows us is Mamie gathering her powers and staring at a machine engineered to discredit her. When the justice system failed her, Mamie turned to the court of public opinion and spoke out publicly. The film builds on one such rally, although Chukwu and co-writers Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly invented another, earlier scene to depict her impact as Mamie leaves Money and every person they pass on the street turns to greet or acknowledge her.
It would take a tough constitution not to be touched by “Till,” though that doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Chukwu might have good reasons not to get involved with what happened between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant — and to be clear, nothing could have justified her reaction or her husband’s subsequent actions. And it’s a matter of good taste not to stage the lynching, just as there are other Oscar nominations stemming from Mamie (who gets the news of Emmett’s death in one of those “Vertigo”-style dolly zooms) and her grandmother (Whoopi Goldberg, so good in just a few scenes).
Chukwu’s first wish is clearly not to victimize Emmett Till again, but by ignoring such details and avoiding the torture, Chukwu may be over-relying on our imaginations. The opposite of In-Your-Face, filmmakers Mel Gibson and Quentin Tarantino have gained much of their popularity through a willingness to traumatize their audiences, who then seek revenge. Chukwu isn’t making a blaxploitation film here, but a responsible, respectable mainstream drama – something more akin in style and sentiment to Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies, about the friendship between a civil rights activist and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Given the blind spots in my own education, I suspect “Till” will be the first time some people have heard this story. Others have lived with it every day since 1955. The gap between these two groups is one of the things that is meant by the word privilege today. Ironically, Till’s killers probably thought they were teaching the boy a “lesson” – one that ultimately backfired on the perpetrators and shook up the country. And yet the resulting violence was part of an injustice so ingrained in America’s past that the crime undoubtedly served its purpose. As black author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a letter to his son Between the World and Me: “I want you to know this: In America, it’s a tradition to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” Let this film be a memory.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/till-review-danielle-deadwyler-1235390377/ ‘Till’ Review: Re-centers the story of a hate crime victim on the mother who made history