Written and Directed by Chinonye Chukwu.
Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Whoopi Goldberg, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Jayme Lawson, Tosin Cole, Kevin Carroll, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Princess Elmore, Josh Ventura, Ed Amatrudo, Gail Everett-Smith, Brendan Patrick Connor, Tim Ware, and Keisha Tillis.
The true story of Mamie Till Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who, in 1955, was lynched while visiting his cousins in Mississippi. In Mamie’s poignant grief journey turned to action, we see the universal power of a mother’s ability to change the world.
In August of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) wanted to leave Chicago and visit his cousins in Mississippi temporarily. It’s ordinary for a young boy to spend time with family members, but in this case, it also allows Emmett to learn more about Black history and culture.
Unfortunately, violence is spreading in Mississippi, targeting Black individuals in retaliation for voters’ rights. One would presume not even the most hateful and vile white supremacists would ever harm a Black child (or perhaps I’m just as naïve), but Mamie Till-Mobley (a revelatory, star-making layered, and potent turn from Danielle Deadwyler) feared otherwise and was tragically proven right.
Receiving some pushback from her mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), who believes it would do some good for Emmett (often referred to as Bobo) to get in touch with his roots, Mamie allows him to go, albeit not without constant reminders that white people aren’t so friendly down there, and that much of his behavior would be frowned upon. Naturally, it’s a frustrating truth since Emmett, so spiritedly played by Jalyn Hall, is full of laughter, smiles, and dreams (he loves singing).
To any young child, let alone Emmett, it’s not easy to break through just how different and cruel a simple change of location can be. Emmett’s bubbly personality and happiness radiate off the screen, so much so that when he innocently and harmlessly refers to a white woman cashier (Haley Bennett) as a Hollywood star look-alike, subsequently whistling at her, it almost feels impossible that a racist sack of crap would feel slighted. But his cousins know he made a mistake and begin fearing for their lives.
Three days later, the husband of Carolyn Bryant figured out who was responsible for the flirtatious gesture and where they lived, knocking at the door with a posse of racist scumbags, insisting they take Emmett. After some struggling and feigning ignorance, uncle Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson) makes a soul-crushingly tough choice of giving up Emmett to save his family (which makes for a devastatingly complicated conversation later on).
What happens from there is wisely kept offscreen to spare viewers more unnecessary Black punishment, but self-explanatory, even if there is a brief moment where Mamie can hope and pray that her son is returned safely.
In these early ongoings, director Chinonye Chukwu’s (making her third feature-length film, co-writing alongside Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly) Till feels like it could fall into a hole at any second, turning into a series of crying sequences. Danielle Deadwyler handles those scenes and the initial shock authentically, but it’s not until Mamie has the casket delivered to her and sees the body that the character and film truly shape into something special.
For roughly 3 minutes, Mamie explores every inch of the brutalized dead body with her fingers; it’s all in silence while forcing the fewer to take in the horrific aftermath, sensitively shot by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. It’s the moment when something inside Mamie is ignited, aware that grieving is perfectly normal but that the world needs something more than that right now.
From there, Mamie turns the murder of Emmett into a statement, publishing pictures beside the body, holding an open casket wake for the public, and teaming up with NAACP-involved Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll) to push for a murder conviction. The trial results are as self-explanatory as what happened to Emmett at the hands of the white supremacists.
Till doesn’t sugarcoat any of this by peppering in some friendly white characters in Chicago. Chinonye Chukwu has no interest in playing Till safe (although the narrative itself is straightforward, elevated by artistic flourishes), only concerned with the facts and how Mamie’s grieving gave way to powerful activism, stoking the fires for the civil rights movement.
However, while on the stand, Mamie is subjected to attempts at public smearing, vile conspiracy theories that are so dumb one can’t help laugh, and preposterous lies. The culmination of this is a lengthy unbroken shot where Mamie fields question after question, lips quivering and rattled but never broken. It’s an incredible scene that defines Mamie’s strength and resolves in a film powered by conviction and resiliency. Whether characters are speaking or not, the images speak for themselves.
Till is concerned with Black pain in the sense that “we have to look,” which is a jumping-off point to what society is capable of when they rise up. But that pain is not the center, for the ending is unquestionably beautiful. We do have to look, and Till needs to be seen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]