Year:  2022

Director:  Chinonye Chukwu

Rated:  M

Release:  March 9, 2023

Distributor: Universal

Running time: 131 minutes

Worth: $18.50
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Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg

... an unmissable film and a humanist work par excellence, no one should look away.

The case of Emmett Till was unfortunately not unique in the violence displayed towards Black Americans during the Jim Crow period. It was shocking, in that the victim of the lynching was a child of fourteen. What made the case unforgettable was the valiant efforts of Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley to bring attention to what happened to her only son and her fight against systemic racism at a time where merely speaking against a white man in Mississippi could mean death for a Black person.

Nigerian American director Chinonye Chukwu doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Her previous film, Clemency (2019) dealt with the growing sense of guilt that a Black warden (Alfre Woodard) felt in being a part of a system that saw numerous Black men on death row – especially the case where she was sure that one man was innocent. Chukwu’s fictional film was inspired by a real case. In Till, she does away with fiction (as much as she can, considering the conflicting versions of events) to tell a timeless and timely story of extreme racism and horrific violence.

It is 1955 and Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler – simply extraordinary) is preparing to send her son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall) from Chicago to his first visit to his relatives in Money, Mississippi. Emmett is irrepressible and sweet, a typical fourteen-year-old boy, who is keen to go on his first solo holiday. His grandmother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg) has convinced Mamie that he needs to see where he comes from. Mamie is not so sure – “I don’t want people seeing him the way they see people down there,” she tells Alma. “Even you left Mississippi, mamma.” “Mae, Bo is growing up, you gotta let him go,” Alma rejoins.

Bo (Emmett’s nickname) has lived in Chicago all his life, and although there is racism present, he has no real idea of what it is like in the South. Despite all of Mamie’s warnings such as “Be small down there… They have different rules down there for negroes,” Bo sees his trip as a fine adventure and a chance to meet his cousins. Within the space of just over a week, he will be dead for the “crime” of speaking to, and innocently whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). His death (shown off-screen) involves him being tortured to death and then thrown into a river.

Many people are aware of the case of Emmett Till and how Mamie Till-Mobley’s efforts on behalf of her son helped to spark the Civil Rights Movement. Chukwu relates the essential parts of the case but is more focused on telling the story of the humans involved and the great sacrifices they made. Although the film concentrates on Mamie and her fight, it extends to include how the NAACP worked for voting rights and touches on the deaths of other community leaders such as Lamar Smith and Reverend Lee. It also gives a human face to people who will die later, such as Medgar Evans (Tosin Cole) and the fear that his wife Myrlie (Jayme Evans) faces every day that her family will be ripped apart.

Chukwu’s direction is laced with stunning imagery (captured by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski) and sterling period accuracy, but it is the powerhouse performances by everyone in the cast that gives the film its astonishing power. Danielle Deadwyler is electric, and Chukwu knows instinctively how to capture her pain and dignity. Supporting turns from Sean Patrick Thomas as Gene Mobely, Mamie’s partner and future husband, as well as Frankie Faison as Mamie’s father John Carthan are pitch-perfect in their love for Bo and Mamie.

Especially noteworthy is John Douglas Thompson as ‘Preacher’ Mose Wright, the uncle Bo was staying with when he was taken by the Bryants and J.W. Milam. He wears the burden of guilt at being unable to stop the men from taking the boy to his certain death because if he fought back at all, his whole family would have been annihilated, “If I shot them, they would have killed all of mine. It would be hunting season on all the negroes in Money… No negro in Money has ever spoken against the white man and lived.”

The fact that he took the stand against the murderers is an act of intense bravery and meant that he had to leave the state with his family to avoid repercussions.

Jalyn Hall as Emmett makes you love and fear for the irrepressible boy who has no conception of life outside the city. Bo is so alive at the beginning of the film that his shocking death reverberates and hits even harder. He really is a child on the cusp of learning what it is to be an adult; his innocent interaction with Carolyn Bryant is shown to be just him noticing a pretty woman and giving her a compliment. Bryant testified that he grabbed her and threatened her with rape (Chukwu has Mamie leave the courtroom during Bryant’s testimony signalling to the audience that Bryant is not to be trusted). Haley Bennett’s performance is laced with the malignancy of racism that plagued (and plagues America still) and she plays the part with a subtle sadism, enjoying watching Mamie suffer and also knowing that her family will never be convicted.

There are several indelible scenes in the film, the most effective involve Mamie and her reaction to Bo’s body. Several people criticised Mamie for having an open coffin for Emmett’s funeral, but Mamie rightfully claimed, “The whole world has to see what happened to my son… I want America to bear witness.” Making America bear witness to the vicious death of Emmett Till meant that the murderers were forced to undergo trial (they were acquitted but due to ‘double-jeopardy’ laws they later confessed to a magazine that they did kill Emmett; they were paid for their confession). To even have white men stand trial for violence against black people was near unthinkable.

Doctor Theodore Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith) tells Mamie before the trial “Our fight and your story must continue and will not end with one single verdict.” Mamie Till-Mobley took his words to heart and continued to fight for the rights of Black people until her death in 2003. There was no official justice for Emmett Till, but 67 years later on March 29th, 2022 The Emmett Till anti lynching act came into being (67 years is far too long for that to wait to pass into law).

Till is a story of resilience and bravery that comes from an unspeakable tragedy. Mamie spoke, and she spoke loud and long. Chukwu and Deadwyler ensure that her voice is not forgotten, honouring generations of Black people who spoke against oppression and to this day, still do. Till is an unmissable film and a humanist work par excellence; no one should look away.