An awards-worthy performance from Danielle Deadwyler (who stole the show in 2021’s The Harder They Fall) lends a passionate heart to this solidly engrossing and still contemporary historical drama set in 1955 and dedicated “to the life and legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley”. Revisiting the true story of the mother turned activist whose battle for justice proved a cornerstone of the emerging American civil rights movement, director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu treads a fine line between display and discretion, laying bare brutal truths without alienating a wide audience (the British Board of Film Classification’s advice for this 12A movie warns only of “disturbing images, upsetting scenes, moderate threat”). The fact that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed into US law last year makes the subject matter all the more timely.
We open in sunny pastel tones that will gradually fade into darkness, and the harmonious singalong sounds of doo-wop that mutate into a nightmarish scream – a recurrent motif. Mamie (Deadwyler) and her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), are driving through Chicago, a metropolitan city where underlying racism is largely hidden beneath a veneer of civility. Emmett is due to visit relatives in Mississippi, a prospect that terrifies Mamie. “I don’t want him seeing himself the way those people are seen down there,” she tells her mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg, who also co-produces), while instructing her son to “be small down there”. Yet Emmett, a gapped-toothed bundle of naive enthusiasm, is unprepared for the strictures of the segregated south, and soon falls foul of murderous thugs who come calling after dark. “It wasn’t just two white men with guns that night,” says the guilt-racked preacher uncle Moses (John Douglas Thompson), from whose house Emmett is taken. “It was every white man who’d rather see a Negro dead than breathing the same air as him.”
What follows is a stirring mix of courtroom drama, social activism and personal tragedy as Mamie decides: “I want America to bear witness” to the tortures inflicted on her child. In a bold move that pays dramatic dividends, Chukwu keeps the murder itself off-screen, focusing our attention instead on Mamie’s reactions, making her the centre of the story. There is an extraordinarily moving scene in which Mamie breaks down as Emmett’s crated body is taken down from the City of New Orleans train, followed by an extended sequence in which we watch her horror at the revelation of the injuries that left her child all but unidentifiable. A symphony of emotions plays out in Deadwyler’s expressive eyes as tears of anguish give way to a steely resolve, the very birth of which we feel we are witnessing on screen. That scene is later echoed as mourners pass by Emmett’s open casket, and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camera focuses on their reactions – some appalled, some bewildered, some stoically hardened to a world in which such atrocities are all too commonplace.
It says much about Chukwu’s storytelling powers that she manages to make the gross injustices of the subsequent legal proceedings somehow feel like a victory, even when the law itself fails obscenely. This should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Chukwu’s previous feature, Clemency (2019), a prison drama (for which Alfre Woodard should have been Oscar-nominated) focusing upon the toll that the death penalty places upon everyone – from prisoners to wardens, chaplains, lawyers and the wider world. In both of these films, Chukwu asks us to look beyond individual legal outcomes and see the bigger picture – to take strength from tragedy and find hope even in despair.
Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, whose recent credits include Frances O’Connor’s lustily gothic Brontë non-biopic Emily, does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, whether lending a note of threatening modernity when picking up from period needle-drops, or orchestrating the psychodramas playing out inside characters’ heads. At times the score can feel somewhat overworked, as if crowding the proceedings with its declarative, surging, swirling strings. By contrast, Deadwyler keeps things reined in, her nuanced performance having little need of orchestrated reinforcement.