THE STORY – The true story of Mamie Till-Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who was brutally lynched in 1955 while visiting his cousins in Mississippi.
THE CAST – Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett & Whoopi Goldberg
THE TEAM – Chinonye Chukwu (Director/Writer), Michael Reilly & Keith Beauchamp (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
Few performances stick with you the way Danielle Deadwyler’s does in “Till.” As Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, who was famously beaten so horribly while visiting cousins in Mississippi that he was near-unrecognizable, Deadwyler is a force. Conjuring the souls of every mother who has lost a child at someone else’s hands, her cries will haunt you. Her eyes look right into your soul, daring you to look away, daring the Southern attorneys who cross-examine her as to how in the world she could possibly tell that the body returned to her was actually that of her son to continue their line of questioning, daring the jury of old white men to convict two of their own for Emmett’s heinous murder. She is impossible to look away from, making one of the most harrowing chapters of America’s history feel viscerally real. It is a performance that is difficult to watch because of just how devastating it is, in a film that many have said they do not want to see because of the trauma embedded in its story.
But one of the many strengths of Chukwu’s film is that it also has embedded in its story Mamie’s own awakening to the importance of this horrible event and her rise as a dedicated civil rights activist. When one of her relatives from Mississippi comes to Chicago for Emmett’s funeral – which has an open casket at Mamie’s request – and tells Mamie that her family is moving North, that she cannot look back, Mamie responds with gentle force: “We have to.” What Mamie knew, and what Chukwu and co-writers Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly know, is that in order to move towards a better future, we have to look back at the most painful parts of our history. “Till” looks at that history head-on but approaches it with such sensitivity that instead of being traumatic, it is galvanizing.
The film is not immune to biopic clichés, however. It opens on a supposedly joyful moment that Deadwyler turns into one of worrisome foreshadowing, aided by the dissonant strings of Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful score. There are many such moments in the film’s first act, as Mamie does her best to prepare sweet young Emmett (an endearing Jalyn Hall) for his time in Mississippi. This could feel unnecessary, but in Deadwyler’s hands, it all feels natural, exactly how any mother in her situation would feel and act.
Her hands get even steadier as the film goes and she has to embody the crushing devastation of her son’s loss over and over, in extended sequences of heartbreaking cries. But she makes sure never to lose sight of Mamie’s strength. The sound that emits from her body as she sees the box Emmett’s body was sent to Chicago in will pierce your heart, but the matter-of-fact way she tells the men around her that Emmett’s body will be on display for the public to see because no one would believe what happened to him otherwise, is chilling in all the right ways. Deadwyler makes Mamie’s backbone stronger as she becomes more sure of herself and what she believes she must do. What starts out as meek questions bolstered by strong emotions becomes dead-serious, hell-hath-no-fury passion bolstered by dignity by the film’s end. The film actively questions her, and thus its own existence, throughout: Should she put her son’s body on display for everyone to see what they did to him? Can she survive a cross-examination if she takes the stand in the Mississippi murder trial? Is it possible for her to have any effect at all? The answer, every time, is a resounding yes.
“Till” is by no means an easy watch. While we do not witness the lynching that took Emmett’s life, we see everything else, including what became of his body. But this is clearly in the spirit of what Mamie did by having an open casket at his funeral, a vital, visceral reminder of a piece of history that many would rather us forget altogether. But it happened, and time only dulls the feelings of the past. Chukwu embraces Mamie’s spirit, not allowing us to look away from the horrors of what happened to Emmett and the pain Mamie had to endure but doing so as sensitively as possible.
Korzeniowski’s score uses its minimalism for maximum effect, seamlessly sweeping us into Mamie’s headspace. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography, golden-hued especially in the film’s early going, artfully spares us the worst while still creating indelible, powerful images. One of its most powerful is also one of its simplest: After returning back to Chicago from Mississippi, Mamie sits in Emmett’s bedroom in silhouette. In that moment, she is still Mamie Till-Mobley, but she could be anyone. She represents all of the mothers of countless boys and girls who have lost their lives because of hate-driven violence. She is your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker, your family member. “Till” makes its horrible history deeply personal in a way that resonates. Through Deadwyler’s incredible performance, the film reaches deep into your soul and fuses it with Mamie’s, making you feel both her terrible pain and her fearsome fire. It will devastate you and then raise you up so that you can continue Mamie’s fight, knowing that her spirit will support you.