FFrom the first scene, Till is haunted by grief. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) sits in the front seat of a car with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler). The camera swirls up and around the smiling couple – director Chinonye Chukwu’s camera often circles around Mamie, the center of a universe of loss – as a catchy ’50s song blares from the radio. They laugh at the same time, then the music sours and distorts like in a horror movie, the sound distorted by future sadness. It’s 1955, weeks before Emmett was murdered by two white men in Mississippi, and this memory will be one of the last.
Till is also loaded with a different haunting: the specter of black pain molded into entertainment, art made from the trauma of American anti-blackness. The film, written by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, was dogged from the start by a questionable premise. What does this reliving of Emmett Till’s brutal murder and Mamie’s subsequent activism accomplish? For whom do we evoke the unimaginable pain of the ghosts of the past?
Till resolutely aims to educate and honor rather than exploit, but does not go beyond these issues; it never completely dispels the mistrust around its premise. That could probably never be the case, given the weight of Till’s lynching in the American public imagination, the visceral horror of his death, or the continued use of his story as a history lesson for white people. The 2 hour and 10 minute film sometimes comes across as an educational film for white audiences – an anonymous appearance by Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), who tells Grandma, “just call me Medgar”; pre-credit slides explaining the assassination and legacy of Evers and the passing of the Anti-lynching law Emmett Till in 2022.
Many of the film’s plot beats mirror those of the series Women of the Movement, an ABC anthology series whose first season, released this spring, also focused on Mamie Till’s life as a civil rights activist. Till is the better version, as a work of art – more assured, more focused, with evocative stylistic choices and the prestige aspect of a better budget. Chukwu, who is Nigerian-American, made a sensitive and painful film that is careful not to wallow in physical trauma and attuned to Granny’s inner self, an echo of Chukwu’s superb 2019 drama. Clemency. Deadwyler, eyes perpetually puffy, delivers a remarkable performance that never tips over into melodrama despite numerous pitfalls. Till is arguably the best-case scenario of a dubious choice, which is to turn the story of Grandma Till into, essentially, a biopic – the tragic metamorphosis of a woman into an activist, a celebrity of grief and racial hatred of America.
As such, Till hits the expected notes: heavy music, scenes illustrating the encroachment of fame, a final moment of triumphant transformation; a few scenes each to texture his relationships with his mother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg) and his loyal partner Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas), both of whom have little characterization beyond supporting Granny. There’s also the cinematic rendering of textbook details. Grandma delivers a “different set of rules for niggers out there” to Emmett. There’s the moment on the train from Chicago to Mississippi where black passengers move around in the back of the train, the wide shot of fields strewn with white cotton and black sharecroppers. The moment when Emmett, played by Hall as supernaturally sweet and naive, pranks white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett); as her husband Roy Bryant and JW Milam grab Emmett from his bed. The moment Grandma lets the reporters in to see her son’s mutilated body, because “the whole world needs to see what happened to my son.”
Chukwu promised viewers that her film would refrain from depicting physical violence – “I’m not interested in relishing that kind of physical trauma,” she said in a featurette broadcast on YouTube – and it is true that we do not see the murder of Emmett. We hear some of them – cries of pain coming from a barn at night, the thud of a whiplash. And while at first it looks like viewers will be spared, we see the horrific consequences. We watch Grandma touch Emmett’s waterlogged ankles, his knee, his stomach, his face mangled beyond recognition. It’s a tough choice to model Emmett’s body, one that I honestly don’t know how to judge. It’s sickening to watch, but seeing, not looking away, was Grandma’s heroic challenge, the catalyst for a movement.
Till is most effective and illuminating in describing how Grandma’s only son became a public figure in death, his grief a national symbol. There’s the click of the cameras as she laments over her son’s coffin, a shot that goes from a single mourner at his funeral to a crowd. Chukwu and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski often capture the never less than mesmerizing Deadwyler in mirrors and windows, his image reproduced, shattered, reflected. It veers into thornier territory where ethics aren’t as strict – the pressure placed on Grandma to publicly show her grief by members of the NAACP who rightfully identified a rare window of attention, or the heartbreaking confrontation between Grandma and the uncle who chose to protect his family for fighting the men who kidnapped Emmett.
But for all his obvious care, Till can’t shake the questions: for whom, why. Watching him, I could imagine Till playing for classes of mostly white American students, an important story told seriously, real people rendered with sensitivity. There is a purpose there. It’s as lofty an execution of a tragic history as one could hope for within the confines of a biopic — neither confirmation from the skeptics nor sufficient justification to relive it.
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