Going into Till, I experienced flashbacks to my high school history class, watching a documentary on the Civil Rights Movement. The murder of Emmett Till was touched upon, as was his funeral and the ensuing trial. This seemingly prepared me for the heartbreak awaiting in Chinonye Chukwu’s biographical drama. Even if you know what happens to Emmett and his mother, Till will leave you shattered and shaken. Given the subject matter, it’s only natural that this story would have an emotional impact. With the wrong filmmakers, though, the story also could’ve come off as manipulative and exploitative. Till is a sincere portrait of a tragedy and a mother’s undying love.
Jalyn Hall’s screen time as Emmett is brief, but he makes a lasting impression as a fourteen-year-old who loves to make others laugh. Although he has a stutter, Emmett possesses the charisma of a performer with a sharp fashion sense. Growing up in Chicago with his single mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), Emmett heads to Mississippi to visit his cousins. Emmett assures his mother that he understands racism is more rampant in the south. He underestimates just how hate-filled people can be, however. Paying a compliment to a frosty white woman (Haley Bennett) at a store, Emmett’s death warrant is signed.
Chukwu refused to depict Emmett’s unspeakable murder. Although we’re spared this graphic imagery, Emmett’s body is eventually revealed in the most devastating and disturbing sequence. As hard as it is looking over Emmett’s mutilated body, it’s just as harrowing watching Mamie inspect the unrecognizable remains of her son. In some movies, it’s more effective when you don’t see the aftermath, relying on the power of suggestion. It was necessary for Till’s story, however. Mamie decided to give Emmett an open-casket funeral without alterting his body, showing the world what his killers had done. Seeing Emmett’s body on screen, the audience feels as if they’re attending his historic funeral, which marked a significant turning point in civil rights. That doesn’t mean it ended lynching overnight or even over the next few decades.
The second half of Till revolves around the trial, which is infuriating to get through. The fact that two of the killers responsible were charged at all was a victory. The idea that they’d be found guilty was never in the realm of possibility. Nevertheless, Mamie agrees to testify, building to a thunderous moment on the stand. With the camera focused on Mamie, we absorb her grief, anger, and courage all at once. While the ending is as optimistic as a movie like this can permit, you’ll walk out full of anger. Hopefully angry enough to keep fighting for justice.
There are four locks for this year’s Best Actress lineup. Danielle Deadwyler is one of them. Deadwyler isn’t new to Hollywood, her most notable role up until this point being enforcer Cuffee in The Harder They Fall. As Mamie, she delivers an explosive performance that drives this film and promises more acting feats to come. Watching Mamie endure a parent’s worst nightmare may leave you broken inside. Deadwyler sees us through the trauma, however, making us glad we listened to Mamie and Emmett’s story.