Till review – sensitive Emmett Till drama aims to educate and honor

A remarkable performance from Danielle Deadwyler anchors an at times morally questionable pursuit: to retell a devastating story of Black pain

From the first scene, Till is haunted with grief. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) sits in the front seat of a car with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler). The camera swirls up and around the smiling pair – director Chinonye Chukwu’s camera often orbits Mamie, the center of a universe of loss – as an upbeat 50s song blares from the radio. They laugh along, then the music sours and distorts as if in a horror movie, the sound warped by future sadness. It’s 1955, weeks before Emmett’s murder by two white men in Mississippi, and this memory will be one of the last.

Till is also freighted with a different haunting: the specter of Black pain molded into entertainment, of art made from the trauma of American anti-Blackness. The film, written by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, has been dogged from the start by a questionable premise. What does this reliving of Emmett Till’s brutal murder and Mamie’s subsequent activism accomplish? For whom are we conjuring the unimaginable pain of ghosts of past?

Till aims steadfastly to educate and honor rather than exploit, but doesn’t outrun these questions; it never fully dispels the wariness around its premise. It probably never could, given the weight of Till’s lynching in the American public imagination, the visceral horror of his death, or the continued use of his story as a history lesson for white people. The 2-hour, 10-minute film occasionally tips its hand as an educational film for white audiences – a name-drop appearance by Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), who tells Mamie, “just call me Medgar”; pre-credit slides explaining Evers’s assassination and legacy and the passage of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act in 2022.

Many of the film’s plot beats mirror that of the show Women of the Movement, an ABC anthology series whose first season, released this spring, also focused on Mamie Till’s life as a civil rights activist. Till is the better version, as a piece of art – more assured, more focused, with evocative stylistic choices and the prestige look of a better budget. Chukwu, who is Nigerian-American, has crafted a sensitive, aching film that is careful not to revel in physical trauma and attuned to Mamie’s interiority, an echo of Chukwu’s superb 2019 drama Clemency. Deadwyler, eyes perpetually welled, delivers a remarkable performance that never tips into melodrama despite numerous pitfalls. Till is arguably the best-case scenario of a dubious choice, which is to turn the story of Mamie Till into, essentially, a biopic – one woman’s tragic metamorphosis into an activist, a celebrity of grief and of America’s racial hatred.

As such, Till hits expected notes: ponderous music, scenes depicting the encroachment of fame, a final triumphant moment of transformation; a couple of scenes each to texture her relationships with mother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg) and steadfast partner Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas), both of whom get little characterization beyond support of Mamie. There’s also the cinematic rendering of textbook details. Mamie delivers a “different set of rules for negroes down there” to Emmett. There’s the moment on the train from Chicago to Mississippi when Black passengers move to the back of the train, the wide shot of fields dotted with white cotton and Black sharecroppers. The moment when Emmett, played by Hall as preternaturally sweet and naive, whistles at white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett); the moment her husband Roy Bryant and JW Milam seize Emmett from his bed. The moment Mamie lets reporters in to see her son’s mutilated body, because “the whole world has to see what happened to my son”.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg
Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg. Photograph: Lynsey Weatherspoon/AP

Chukwu promised viewers that her film would refrain from depicting physical violence – “I’m not interested in relishing in that kind of physical trauma,” she said in a featurette released on YouTube – and it is true that we don’t see Emmett’s murder. We hear some of it – screams of pain from a barn at night, the thud of a lash. And though at first it seems viewers will be spared, we see the ghastly aftermath. We watch Mamie touch Emmett’s waterlogged ankles, his knee, his stomach, his face mutilated beyond recognition. It is a difficult choice to mock up Emmett’s body, one I’m honestly not sure how to judge. It’s sickening to watch, but the act of seeing, of not looking away, was Mamie’s heroic defiance, the catalyst of a movement.

Till is most effective and illuminative in depicting how Mamie’s only son became, in death, a public figure, her grief a national symbol. There’s the click of cameras as she wails over her son’s casket, a shot that expands from a single mourner at his funeral to a crowd. Chukwu and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski often capture Deadwyler, never less than riveting, in mirrors and windows, her image reproduced, splintered, reflected. It swerves into thornier territory where the ethics aren’t as stark – the pressure placed on Mamie to show her grief publicly by NAACP members who rightly identified a rare window for attention, or the gut-wrenching confrontation between Mamie and the uncle who chose protecting his family over fighting the men who took Emmett.

But for all its evident care, Till can’t shake the questions: for whom, why. Watching it, I could imagine Till playing for classrooms of mostly white American students, important history told seriously, real people rendered sensitively. There is a purpose in that. It is as noble an execution of tragic historical record as one could hope for within the limits of a biopic – neither confirmation of doubters nor enough justification to relive it.

  • Till is showing at the New York film festival and will be out in US cinemas on 14 October and in the UK on 23 January


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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