Portrait of a mother in mourning.
On paper, and in its trailers, Till reads like a standard Hollywood “prestige” biopic, the kind that mines period-specific tragedy for an uplifting tale within a tightly structured time frame. But in the hands of director Chinonye Chukwu, it’s anything but straightforward. It follows Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), then Mamie Bradley, in the lead up to and aftermath of the lynching of her son, 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), in 1955. Emmett’s is one of those Civil Rights-era tales, like Rosa Parks’ participation in the Montgomery bus boycott or Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, whose shape is widely remembered, but whose details, place in history, and wider context are often sanded down. Till leans into its biopic trappings on occasion, as it tells of Mamie’s resilience in the weeks that followed, but where it stands apart is in its approach to performance. Whatever the movie’s flaws, they may as well be rendered null by Deadwyler’s unapologetic, unrestrained portrait of mourning, which is no less than exemplary of why we go to the movies.
Few viewers going into the story will be unaware of the real events, between young Emmett’s trip to see family in segregated Mississippi and his (highly contested) interaction with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), which led to him being kidnapped, shot dead, and dumped in a river, in one of America’s most notorious hate crimes. The film, perhaps rightly, avoids portraying this violence in vivid detail, but it pulls no emotional punches, even though it opens in Chicago several days before his visit as his mother drives him around. Emmett, whom Mamie lovingly calls “Bo,” is a happy-go-lucky teen who wants to grow up quickly, so the potential dangers of his Southern vacation sit uneasily in Mamie’s stomach. In fact, the introductory scenes seem to switch between an unassuming, everyday fabric (of course, with the requisite racial aggressions, to give us a sense of Mamie’s head-held-high response), and a tale in which Mamie seems, on some instinctive level, aware of the viciousness about to befall her son.
In one moment, Deadwyler displays heightened maternal caution. But in the next — as the camera charges in on her, leaving Emmett out of frame and causing him to feel absent — it’s as if he’s already been murdered, even though he’s right beside her in the passenger’s seat, just off-screen. What we’re watching feels less like an objective retelling and more like a memory, from some future vantage where Mamie already knows the outcome.
It’s an unexpected but deeply affecting alignment of perspective between Mamie and the audience. It plays out uncannily, with Mamie expressing regrets about letting Emmett travel, in ways that feel like guilt divined from tea leaves — “We’ve never been apart for this long,” she says; it’s only been a day, but to her, it feels like centuries — while Emmett is portrayed with a saccharine innocence. As the young Emmett, Hall brings heartwarming smiles and a sense of adolescent mischief during warmly lit scenes of laughter that may as well be dreams (kudos to cinematographer Bobby Bukowski). This is as much a narrative device to endear us to who and what was lost, as much as it is a mother’s pristine memories, preserved in amber.
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When Emmett goes missing, and Mamie begins to worry about him from afar, what ought to feel like suspended animation is more of a dramatic and aesthetic lull, which carries well past the discovery of Emmett’s death. It’s the film’s only real misstep, but it’s less that Till isn’t “good” in these moments, and more that it fails to rise to the level of “excellent” like everything that comes before this section and most of what follows. It’s a waiting game, first for news about Emmett’s whereabouts, and then about retrieving his body. While each update is a knife-twist for Mamie and her family — her mother Alma Carthan (Whoopi Goldberg), her estranged father John Carthan (Frankie Faison), her fiancé Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas), and her distant cousin Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll), a lawyer who decides to help — the camera seems to simply lie in wait, at a distance, for the story to take a different shape. However, once it does, this mildly frustrating anticipation pays off in the form of devastating emotional eruptions.
Like fellow fall release Blonde, Till maintains an awareness of the relationship between real-world pictures and public perception, so it uses recognizable moments as a gateway, starting first with the arrival of Emmett’s body at a Chicago train station. Mamie, barely able to stand, was famously photographed receiving her son’s coffin, and Chukwu’s re-creation of this moment shifts the film into emotional high gear. This is when Emmett’s death becomes starkly real for Mamie, and so she lets out a series of unrestrained wails as Deadwyler slips (and then plummets) into an anguished trance. It’s the kind of committed, fearless, full-bodied dramatic performance that you rarely see in American studio pictures. It would feel at home in an experimental theater piece, but it absolutely belongs in Chukwu’s frame. It’s so messy yet so intimate that it feels like something we’ve intruded upon — something we shouldn’t be watching — a sensation that becomes compounded when Mamie first lays eyes on Emmett’s bloated, mangled body and has to identify what’s left of him.
However, Chukwu isn’t interested in the carnage — at least not the physical carnage. Her camera is more concerned with its emotional effects, and so when we finally see what was done to Emmett, it isn’t during Mamie’s initial shock and horror, but in the subsequent tender moments, when she begins to recognize her son and his familiar contours. What follows is a tale in which Mamie wrestles with how best to preserve his memory while also reaching for some semblance of impossible justice. Once again, she knows the outcome; she has no doubt the verdict of 12 white jurors won’t go her way, despite the horrors she’s endured, but she latches on to a glimmer of hope that her fight may someday mean something.
With Rayfield’s help, she gets in touch with local NAACP chapters and even crosses paths with future Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), but all the while, it is not her public activism that keeps the story afloat, but the private grief underscoring it, practically turning her front-facing resilience into a form of dramatic tension. We’re led constantly to wonder: when will the mask slip? Will it be when she first lets a photographer see her child — the creation of another famous photo — so the nation can bear witness? Or perhaps when she gives testimony in court, facing mountains of unrepentant racist scorn, as Chukwu refuses to cut away from her for several minutes at a time?
Chukwu’s previous film, her tremendous debut feature Clemency, featured similar unbroken close ups of Alfre Woodard, who played a warden overseeing prison executions. It was also about the effects of death and the guilt on the human soul, a story captured on her actress’ face. The director takes a similar approach to Till, and Deadwyler is her not-so-secret weapon, delivering a completely lived-in performance as a mother struggling to keep her head above water as the nation’s eyes turn towards her. If the film falters, it’s only because of its incomplete scrutiny of what it means for people to say they feel “honored” every time they meet Mamie as her fight goes on. It’s a sentiment with which she’s clearly uncomfortable, and one that complicates her son’s memory; at what point, one wonders, does a person simply become a cause, and cease to be human? This question was central to Clemency as well, but Till doesn’t investigate the idea nearly as much as it scrutinizes the contours of Mamie’s sorrow — even though the two go hand-in-hand for most of her journey, since the media spotlight, and her relationship to it, are a constant presence.
However, it’s Mamie’s fight against indignity, and the way Deadwyler turns each personal battle into an enrapturing emotional tug of war — assisted by the riveting, propulsive strings of composer Abel Korzeniowski — that allow Till to approach the same emotional highs as Clemency, even if it isn’t as nuanced or finessed. The movie is a tragedy, in which a son is seen through a mother’s eyes for the last time, and in which those eyes become windows into the most raw, vulnerable, and discomforting parts of grief, as Mamie struggles to find the right way to remember Emmett, and the right way to breathe.
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With a stunningly raw performance from Danielle Deadwyler, Chinonye Chukwu’s Till lives in the body of a traditional biopic — about Mamie Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son Emmett’s lynching — but it turns real events into regretful, wistful memories, with a camera that refuses to look away from a mother’s pain.