The Death of Emmett Till Still Matters


Done in a straight-forward style not intimidating to mainstream movie goers, Chinonye Chukwu’s new historical drama Till aesthetically falls in with countless other such films.  It is an imperfect aesthetic in which the light is all too often contentedly flat, and the paint is, much of the time, not quite dry.  The approach to storytelling in this type of film is often artless, a chronological series of factual moments broken down and distilled by necessity, then broken up with perfunctory character beats.  This allows performances to take center stage, which makes for easy focus come film awards season.  It’s all enough to make a longtime cinephile jaded at the prospect of something like Till.  This is wrong.

The mere fact that there’s a need (not a remembrance. A need.) for a movie about the Emmett Till tragedy nearly seventy years after it affected the nation is atrocious.  The verdict resulting from the considerably more recent murder of George Floyd demonstrates a modicum of progress insofar as it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that a white person can get away scott-free with killing a Black person.  That there’s still any kind of handwringing, any kind of “Yes, but…”, or any kind of debate, though, when it’s perfectly clear what’s happened… This is wrong.

Till takes us back to 1955 Mississippi, a place where white terrorism against minorities was not only commonplace, but practically encouraged by the power structure.  Young African American Emmett (Jalyn Hall, beaming with almost unnatural inner radiance), age fourteen and all smiles, boards a train from his native Chicago to go visit family in the Deep South.  He leaves behind his doting widowed mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), who proceeds to spend all of her scenes for the next forty-five minutes telling anyone and everyone about the bad premonitions she’s got about sending her son away.  In Money, Mississippi, after a fateful visit to a very small local grocery store, Mamie’s worst fears are borne out.  At night, they come and take the boy.  The body that is recovered is so mangled, so tortured, so bloated and unrecognizable that in court, the defense in is able to question whether it’s him at all.  And of course, this argument, paired with lies, works. This is horrific.

Historically, Mamie Till-Mobley made a point of forcing the world’s gaze at the horror of her son’s grotesque dead body.  So too does the film.  (For a moment there, it looks like maybe it’s not.  In actuality, those few reactionary beats focus us solely upon Mamie’s first response at the morgue.  This is smart directing).  And that is the genius about Till– after lulling the audience with false sense of cinematic security (never mind the historical truths we know are coming), Chukwu follows the lead of her main character, and makes us look upon the result of sick, real, intolerance.  Although Till has other weak spots to be critically exploited, this singular stoke of honest, in-keeping activism moves this critic to largely overlook them.  This is true.

Propelling the entirety of the film is a monumentally moving presence by Deadwyler.  Deadwyler, though surrounded by a bevy of terrific talent (including Frankie Faison as John Carthan, Sean Patrick Thomas as Gene Mobley, John Douglas Thompson as Moses Wright, Haley Bennett as Carolyn Bryant, Tosin Cole as Medgar Evers, and producer [one of nine, alongside Barbara Broccoli of 007 moviemaking fame] Whoopi Goldberg as Alma Carthan), largely carries the bulk of this very heavy film.  The all she gives is a lot, often transcending the ascribed limits of the rote movie niche that she’s working within.     Like her true-life character, Deadwyler cannot be ignored come Oscar time.  This is true.

For those already of the mind that black lives do indeed matter, and/or for anyone experientially bored by historical dramas, Till will likely not prove eye-opening.  Powerful, yes- but not revelatory.  It’s everyone else who needs to be corralled to this film.  To them, the invitation to turn and face the American past- albeit, in this case, through a lens of ascribed recreation- is something that needs to be accepted one way or the other.  If our country is to truly grow, it must first mend.  To engage with this heartbreaking tale of a mother whose world is viscerally destroyed (even with the violence is committed off screen) is a big step.  A bold step.  Take the step.  This is right.