The brutal murder of Emmett Louis Till made headlines around the world 1950s America. People were aware that Black people in the U.S. were being killed simply for the color of their skin, but when his mother Mamie Till-Mobley opened the casket at her son’s viewing, her action did more than she ever expected, it sparked a movement.
Till begins with a happy 14-year-old Emmett who is looking forward to spending the summer with family in Mississippi. Living in Chicago, he is unfamiliar with the South and how Black people are treated as second-class citizens. His mother constantly reminds him that there are different rules for Black people than he is used to. Her Uncle Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson) is set to be in charge of his safety.
We see Emmett getting used to life in Money, Mississippi. He dislikes picking cotton but enjoys spending time with his cousins. Then, one day, he walks into Carolyn Bryant’s general store. The events are hazy because the film depicts the young man equating her looks to a movie star and allegedly whistling at her. Bryant stated in court he made a pass at her. A lie for which a grand jury in Leflore County recently found insufficient evidence to prosecute Bryant, who recently surfaced.
We sympathize with Moses, who does his best to appease the mob when they demand he hand over Emmett. The fear on his face tells the audience that he lost all power the moment those men set foot on Moses’ porch. It’s also worth noting that the posse rounding up Emmett wasn’t all white men. Although we do not see the violence, Chukwu makes us aware of the dangers and terrible decisions made.
Meanwhile in Chicago, Mamie has been worried since her baby left. She tries to balance work and time with her partner Gene Mobley. It’s as if she knows her son’s trip down south will end in disaster. To the average viewer, she may appear clingy, but a Black mother knows that every time her son leaves the house, especially in Mississippi in 1955, he may not return.
Danielle Deadwyler is a force to be reckoned with as Mamie Till, capturing a mother’s anguish, pain, and bravery. There are several scenes that draw the viewer in, but it is her testimony at the trial, in which she explains to a tumultuous room the instructions she gave Emmett when he encountered white people, that proves she is deserving of a Best Actress nomination in a performance that is simply heartbreaking.
Jalyn Hall faces a difficult task in bringing Emmett Till to life and is more than up for the task and the responsibility of telling the story of a boy we only know through his death. John Douglas Thompson gives a heartbreaking performance as Moses. He is charged with demonstrating to the world that survival for Black people in Jim Crowe’s South was often costly. The anguish is brought home by a conversation between a guilt-ridden Moses and a bereaved Mamie. She questions him on why he made the decisions he did. “It would have been mine had I not chosen yours,” he exclaims. Your heart breaks for both of them, but he finds courage in that moment. Courage that helps him tell a much needed truth in court.
The sacrifice was understood by director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency), who made it clear that this would not be a film about trauma, but about love, so the focus of Till is a mother’s love for her child and how that moved her to advocacy. Chukwu enlisted the help of documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp and Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg (as Alma Carthan) tell this important story. Beauchamp devoted 27 years of research to the cause to tell this story, and Goldberg was driven by a desire to educate a new generation about this historic event.
Art frequently imitates life, and Till is being released at a time when America refuses to reconcile with its past. It doesn’t want to teach its citizens that its union isn’t perfect, but it does force us to consider how we all played a role in making another Moses choose his over others. Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, but we have yet to learn the lessons of his death, and Mamie Till sacrificed far too much for the world to claim ignorance. This is a fine film with a stellar cast carrying a heavy burden, and a history lesson that should not detract from its value, importance and relevance.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. United Artists Releasing and Orion Pictures will release Till in select theaters on October 14 and then nationwide on October 28.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pictures