Up until this point, there have been numerous films and documentaries centered around the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and how it ignited a crucial wave for the civil rights movement leading into the tumultuous 1960s. This latest film, simply titled Till, is Chinonye Chukwu’s follow-up to the acclaimed Clemency, and it repackages the well-known story of Till’s brutal, senseless, and irredeemably racist murder into a streamlined and focused tale about generational Black justice told from the perspective of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
Jalyn Hall (Space Jam: A New Legacy) plays the bright and kind Emmett as the cheerful, even mischievous young teenager as recounted by his friends and family over the decades, some of whom are still alive. We briefly follow his life in 50s Chicago under the loving care of his mother, Mamie, played by Danielle Deadwyler (The Harder They Fall) in what is undoubtedly her most awe-inspiring performance to date, the kind of knockout, whirlwind, all-bets-are-off performance that leaves audiences unable to even stir in their seats.
Even in Chicago, racism is a matter of life, something Chukwu takes pains to make clear in not-so-subtle ways before Emmett makes off for his vacation to the Mississippi South. Yes, there’s a clear distinction made in the more pronounced perils of these rural outposts, where Jim Crow laws plague Black communities with stifling, constant threats of danger if they so much as look at a white person wrong.
But to Emmett, these dangers are on the periphery. Something he’s aware of but does not let pierce his unending enthusiasm. It’s a striking question the film brings into focus several times throughout. Emmett is obviously not to blame for what happens to him, but how does his story balance between cautionary tale and call to action? The film wisely takes a firm stance. After the dominos fall on what ultimately dooms Emmett’s promising future, Mamie finds herself propelled into a world of not just heartbreak, but a movement fueled by righteous indignation.
It’s in these moments that other films tackling similar subject matter often trip up. They either restrain too much from depicting the horrors inflicted upon Black lives, or they edge into gratuitous nonsense, making the audience question the filmmaker’s true motives at best. Chukwu, by comparison knows exactly when to pull the camera back. When to shift the angle and perspective to one that highlights the emotion and reaction to trauma over the visceral trauma itself. And she’s helped generously by co-screenwriter/producers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp.
Again, it’s not an easy balance to strike. It takes tremendous care and commitment to the material presented beyond a passing motivation to do this story justice and reach a new audience. One that has no idea who Emmett Till was or what he went through. The film also shows tremendous restraint in using the past to paint the present. Yes, anyone with eyes can see how we’re not too far away from where we once were in the United States, if we ever really moved much at all beyond, let’s face it, hollow liberal platitudes and vague victory laps rather than meaningful, progressive leaps in freedom and justice for all. But Chukwu lets the viewer fill all this in with their own brain. Deadwyler has no fourth-wall breaking moments to interrupt her grieving breaking points.
The rest of the cast comes in fairly awkwardly at times. Frankie Faison plays Mamie’s estranged, but willing-to-help father, a voice of reason as she travels to the place where her son was murdered and now seeks justice. Whoopi Goldberg, also a co-producer of the film, plays Mamie’s mother in a role that feels cuts short in some ways, perhaps for editing reasons. And then there’s Haley Bennett, whose chilling, hateful gaze as the shopkeeper who threatens Emmett’s life over a whistle comes off as a blank, less confident performance that is almost too lost in its subtlety and nuance.
But none of these middling points are the point. Till succeeds exactly in the ways it needs to, not just as a powerful, awards-worthy showcase for Deadwyler, but also as a clear example of how films should represent stories this sensitive and important. Not with an intent to somehow trick audiences into thinking we’ve moved past all this, but by instead focusing on the real reasons why they happened at all and continue to happen to this day. Because when it comes down to it, racial justice hasn’t really come to fruition yet, and it’s about time more films catch up to that reality.
Till is now playing in select theaters through United Artists Releasing and will expand on October 21. Watch the official trailer here.