I wouldn’t blame people, either Black or not Black, if they wanted to sit out Till. As you’ve probably guessed by the title, it takes us back to those days when you could beat and murder a Black kid and get away with it.
Yes, it’s another cinematic depiction of Black pain, a harrowing 130 minutes of anguish and outrage— just in time for Oscar season. Tears and screams flow out of Black people almost immediately. Right in the opening minutes, we see a woman driving happily in her car with her son. Then, the camera zooms in on her face. She gets all misty in the eyes, presumably thinking about all the awful things that could happen to her son— like getting dragged away by white men (and their Black employees) in the middle of the night.
The woman is Mamie Till (played here by Danielle Deadwyler), the Chicago-based mother of Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), who will take a fatal trip to visit relatives in Mississippi and come back home in a box. Even though Mama Till instructs her boy to walk on eggshells around Down South white folk before he leaves, the kid’s fate becomes sealed when he awkwardly whistles at the wrong white lady (Haley Bennett).
As with her 2019 debut/Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Clemency, co-writer/director Chinonye Chukwu creates another emotional journey for a Black woman whose desire to see the truth prevail only leads to more heartbreak. This time around, the story is fact-based. Collaborating with co-writer/director Keith Beauchamp (who directed the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till), Chukwu documents Miss Till’s grief, rage and eventual mission for justice. Just as the real Miss Till took photos with her child’s body and held an open-casket funeral, practically forcing the public and the press to face the horrifying racism that was still running rampant in America, Till doesn’t shy away from the sight of Emmett Till’s bloated, unsettling corpse and the visceral, life-shattering effect it had on his mother and other family members. (As Mamie’s mother, co-star/producer Whoopi Goldberg gives a subtle, sympathetic turn as the remorseful big mama.)
While the younger Till is unfortunately characterized as a clueless, optimistic naïf (Hall plays him as a bigger country bumpkin than the relatives he was visiting), the matriarch is both written and portrayed as quiet but determined. Deadwyler goes through a bevy of emotions in a performance that presumably took a lot out of her; she spends most of the movie in a grueling, sorrowful haze, which she eventually snaps out of when she has to go to Mississippi and attend the trial of the two men who murdered her boy. That’s when and where she begins her new role as an activist, inspiring other Civil Rights crusaders — like a young Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole)— who’ve already set up shop there.
Working with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, Chukwu comes up with a sharp, colorful visual aesthetic, practically providing a sunny view of 1950s America — a time I’m sure a lot of MAGA hat-wearing folk would love to go back to — that clashes with the nightmarish reality Black people went through. This may be the most visually lively film ever made about straight-up racist fuckery.
It’s that intriguing, thematically conflicting execution, along with Deadwyler’s warts-and-all performance, that keeps Till from sliding into relentless melodrama and eventually becoming an effective (and affecting) story of true, Black trauma that you wouldn’t mind seeing get some Oscar nods.
“Till” is out Friday in limited release. It goes wide on October 28.