04 Jan 23
The 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till remains one of the most sickening, heart-wrenching episodes in the history of American civil rights. Following up her acclaimed 2019 film Clemency, co-writer-director Chinonye Chukwu puts the tragic story on screen for the first time with a blistering but clear-eyed vision that makes the story feel more resonant and relevant than ever.
It also features a career-making turn from Danielle Deadwyler that is sure to be at the centre of any Best Actress conversation.
Perhaps Chukwu's smartest move is opting not to depict the brutal murder on screen. Instead, Till is told through the eyes of Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Deadwyler), who struggled for years to expose the racism that led to her son's lynching in the Jim Crow South and became a driving force for the Civil Rights Movement as she fought for justice.
"The film is about Mamie and her journey, and it is also about the love and humanity that existed within her and in her relationship with Emmett and all the other people who were a part of her community, and her ecosystem," Chukwu told CinemaBlend. "I take great care in making a film that inspires a level of hope and possibility and self-empowerment." It's an optimistic but sophisticated approach that eschews sensationalism by focusing on the context and aftermath of the heinous act without ever forgetting the human element.
The story hinges on two time-frames, the before and after of the actual event. At the heart of the film is the economically sketched loving relationship between Mamie and Emmett (Jalyn Hall), her only son, perfectly conveyed in a tender moment in which the pair sing along to The Moonglows' Sincerely on a car radio.
Played in a few brief scenes with a cheeky irreverence by Hall, Emmett is a bright ball of energy, singing along with TV jingles, a performer in waiting. His exuberance makes him an obvious target for white hatred when he is sent from Chicago to stay with cousins in Mississippi, despite his mother's warnings to make himself small.
The 'after' strand is powerful stuff, the focus on Mamie reframing the story from a tragedy to a stirring, emotionally engaging tale of heroism. Chukwu and co-writers Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly create compelling vignettes – for example, Mamie insisting the disfigured body of her son is showcased in an open coffin for all to see, and testifying in a trial against white perps, knowing full well the cards were stacked against her – that chart Mamie's growing fortitude.
There are strong performances all round, particularly from Whoopi Goldberg (who also produces) as Emmett's grandmother Alma, who is adamant Emmett should 2013 know his roots. However, the film belongs to Deadwyler. Best known for playing mysterious enforcer Cuffee in The Harder They Fall, she invests Mamie with pain (listen to her cries of despair as the coffin carrying Emmett is lifted off a train) and ferocity, empathy and dignity, a broken woman who finds inner reserves in the most desperate circumstances.
Time and again, Chukwu has the sense to hold her camera on Deadwyler's face – especially during the courtroom scenes – and we begin to experience this unspeakable crime through her eyes.
The synergy between director and actor is what makes Till crackle. This is an unwavering but inspiring study of a dark chapter in US history that doesn't hit a false note. Jimmy Nsubuga
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