TILL: 4 ½ STARS. “walks the line between historical record and urgent cry for action.”
Despite its explosive historical topic, “Till,” now playing in theatres, is a quiet movie, an understated look at how a mother’s grief can change the world.
Set in 1955, the true story (Jalyn Hall) begins in Chicago with 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) preparing to visit his uncle and cousins in Mississippi. He’s a little kid with a big personality who likes to sing along with Louis Prima records, wear a fedora and act out scenes from horror movies.
His loving mother Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) urges him to be careful in the South. “Be small down there,” she says as he boards the train. She has a sense of foreboding that reads in flashes on her face. “He just doesn’t know how different things are down there.”
On August 24 Emmett, called Bo by his family and friends, hangs out with his cousins at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the local general store. Inside, he buys candy from white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). Making conversation he says, “You look like a movie star.” Later, outside the store, Emmett playfully wolf-whistles her. As she scrambles for her gun, Emmett and cousins flee, hoping that is the end of Bryant’s racist rage.
The historical record shows what happened next. Young Emmett was kidnapped in the middle of the night from his uncle’s home by Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s 24-year-old husband, and his half-brother J.W. Milam. Taken to another location, the teenager was beaten, shot and hanged before being dumped, unceremoniously in a river, where his bloated body was discovered days later.
In Chicago, when the tragic news arrives, Mamie is thrust into a national conversation on civil rights as Emmett’s killers are placed on trial.
“Till” is a historical period piece that resonates with ripped-from-the-headlines urgency. While true to the timeframe, the story contains all too familiar and current themes. This is the story of Emmett Till and his mother, but it reverberates with the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.
Director Chinonye Chukwu’s movie walks the line between historical record and urgent cry for action, but does so in an elegant film anchored by a remarkable performance. As Mamie, Deadwyler is a mix of love, grief and fury in a performance that vibrates with authenticity.
On her way to becoming a civil rights icon, Mamie withstood not only the loss of her son but also a biased judge who calls Mrs. Bryant “dear” as she prepares to fabricate the story of her interaction with Emmett on the stand, and a Mississippi sheriff who accuses her and the NAACP of staging the entire event. “That boy is still alive somewhere,” he says. In the face of each of these scenarios, and others, Deadwyler is vulnerable and steely but never sentimental in her work.
Stuck between her duty as a mother and the opportunity to use Emmett’s death as a catalyst for change, Mamie uses her grief as a powerful tool and Deadwyler’s resolve is self-evident in every frame of the film.
“Till” is a thoughtful film that showcases Mamie’s humanity and push for change over the inhumane action of Emmett’s murderers. It is a tragedy, but it doesn’t sensationalize events. It mines the real feelings left in the aftermath of the Emmett’s death by way of beautiful, quiet scenes. The solace Mamie feels, for instance, while reading an unfinished letter from her late son, is unforgettable, as is the film.