Review: Till | York Vision
There have never really been words to describe what happened to Emmet Till on August 24, 1957. Many have tried. Revenge, murder, lyching, hate crimes, martyrdom were all contemplated. But for Mamie Till, it was one thing… loss. 67 years ago, Mamie Till-Bradley lost her only son to white supremacist hatred, and now her perspective is finally being told.
Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till” tells Mamie’s story truthfully and wholeheartedly, building a legacy for the mother of America’s most famous lynched victim while bringing new life to the personification of Emmett Till.
In this film, Emmett Till isn’t just the victim whose death sparked a civil rights movement. In this film, Mamie Till is not just the mother mourning her son before a nation. In this film, both mother and son begin new lives as boys and activists, respectively, in a personal and social reflection on the murder that launched the civil rights movement.
The story is told delicately, maintaining leadership in each scene with care and consideration, always respectful of the real people and real stories it portrays.
The film opens with brightness and love, a mother and son shopping spree, yet echoes of impending tragedy still swirl through the musical notations and acting choices. This suspense continues throughout the film as the audience awaits a boy’s mistaken whistle, setting in motion a heartbreaking series of events.
The size of what is depicted can be felt at every moment. The dread of witnessing the brutal murder of a young child hangs in the air up until this point, and thereafter colors every scene with a sense of uneasiness and need. Because even after decades of looking back, viewers hope for his rescue.
Historical moments that previously shocked a nation are carefully reconstructed by Chukwu, and the candid emotions and perspectives of the time are brought to life for audiences to empathize with decades later.
The unveiling of Emmett’s mutilated corpse is a particularly notable reconstruction; a slow and purposeful revelation that takes its time to illustrate the full weight of his trauma. The shock value is effective and directly mimics the initial effect Mamie’s choice of the open coffin had on a country witnessing the true damage of lynchings for the first time.
The film also moves beyond Emmett’s death and enters the trial of his killers, seen from Mamie’s perspective. When Mamie could have burst into the story as the poor mother of a dead boy, she instead hits back and insists on testifying to get justice. When this process inevitably fails, she devotes her life to raising children and fighting for civil rights.
Therefore, the core of the film is the real people it portrays and not just the textbook events in which they appear.
The disposition of a young, loving, sunny boy named Emmett Till is enhanced by Jalyn Hall, who brings to screen a sense of brief joy and optimism before his death. Although we never live to see his death, the contrast of Emmet’s attitude towards life is important in cementing the film’s emotional resonance. It’s the loss of a child’s innocence, snuffed out by violence, death, hate, and a cruel and unfair justice system that affirms a necessary truth of the story: that Emmett Till was not a man or a martyr, he was a boy. A child lynched by white hatred. Hall is perfectly cast for the role, with a vibrant youth and a sparkling sense of fun that draws us into the story from his first to his last moments on screen with naïve hope for his survival.
If Hall’s Emmet is the core of the film, then Danielle Deadwyler’s mom is the driver. As the film reconstructs the legacy of the woman who engineered her own son’s posthumous purpose, Deadwyler fills every frame with purpose. There is no random scene, no unpredictable emotion. This is a performance that carries the weight of tragedy and understands on every level the importance of telling this story.
Whining and whimpering, but also unwavering resilience echo through Deadwyler as Mamie processes various states of grief, hate, forgiveness, depression, shock and determination. An acting process that not only taps into the emotions of a real mother, but forces the audience to feel them resonating in the story as well.
There’s never a moment that feels half-baked or unnecessary – Mamie’s perspective is key, and getting it right seems to be the primary goal of the entire filmmaking team.
Also, “Till” never shies away from the blatant bigotry it must display, and is careful not to excuse it as simply “timely”. In fact, the film’s greatest gift is its defiance of those who say, “It’s time to move on” today.
As long as there are people who remember how bad it was, who recognize Emmett and Mamie’s trauma, who can imagine how far society has come…then there will be reasons to keep improving it.
Continuing to commend the representation of black people and other marginalized groups in the film. To keep fighting for black lives. Staring in horror at the fact that it took 67 years to introduce Emmett Till’s anti-lynching law, which was only signed into US federal law in March of this year.
Why did it take so long? Because history forgot Emmett and Mamie Till. With Chukwu’s passionate film, it must never be forgotten.
Till’ manifests a strong memory of the past, imbued with a resonant understanding of the present and desperate hope for the future. It encourages vital continuation of work even as one acknowledges the improvements America and the world have seen. Despite looking back 70 years, the story continues to be shocking and compelling, asking how this murder could ever have happened and why all these years later justice just never prevailed.
Prepare to mourn alongside Mamie Till-Bradley during what may be the two most important hours of your year as ‘Till’, Chinonye Chukwu and Danielle Deadwyler work devastatingly to keep the family legacy alive.
“Till” hits UK cinemas on January 6th