The simple, single-syllable word “boy” has multiple shades of meaning in Chinonye Chukwu’s emotionally wrenching Till. It conveys pure scorn in the form of address used by white supremacists in the Jim Crow South to intimidate and demean Black males of any age. It shudders with vulnerability in a newspaper headline announcing that an abducted 14-year-old’s corpse has been found in the Tallahatchie River. It burns with anguish as a mother tells the world of her son’s mutilated body: “That was my boy.” It carries bitter irony in the cheerful sign welcoming visitors to the Mississippi town where Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury: “Sumner: A Good Place to Raise a Boy.”
Any film dramatizing the killing in 1955 of Emmett Louis Till, one of the most indelible 20th century horrors of violent American racial hatred, raises questions as to whether the material is enlightening or traumatic. Chukwu, who explored the psychological toll of the death penalty with meditative complexity in her remarkable 2019 breakthrough, Clemency, circumvents that issue here by refusing to depict Till’s murder onscreen. Her film maps out the context, showing the brutality only obliquely, and focuses instead on the aftermath, as the victim’s mother fights for justice and finds her voice as a civil rights activist.
The Bottom Line
Uneven but elevated by a stirring lead turn.
The attempted erasure in recent years of both history and critical race theory in many conservative states seems justification enough to revisit the sickening events of Emmett Till’s death. And the astonishing fact that it took 67 years to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime when it was signed into law in March this year, indicates not only the political dysfunction but also the obstructive forces of bigotry and racism that fester in America. So yes, that does seem to outweigh concerns about the necessity of an Emmett Till film.
Whether the ascent of Mamie Till-Mobley from her quiet, middle-class life in Chicago to a national civil rights platform succeeds as a subject for drama is a question not satisfactorily answered in the screenplay by Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chukwu. Till is more effective as an intimate portrait of devastating loss than a chronicle of the making of an activist. But the film has a powerful weapon in its arsenal in Danielle Deadwyler’s transfixing performance as a broken woman who finds formidable strength within herself.
The loving bond between Mamie and her only son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) is clear as they sing along to the doo-wop romance of The Moonglows’ “Sincerely” on the car radio. But the hint of apprehension and sadness in her eyes signals Mamie’s mixed feelings about sending Emmett off for a summer vacation with his cousins in the Mississippi Delta. His grandmother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), thinks he should know where he came from, but Mamie believes that Chicago, where Emmett was born, is all he needs to know.
The conflicted feelings toward their origins among Black families that moved north in the Great Migration, to escape poverty, segregation and discrimination, touch on an interesting point over which the script could have lingered longer. Mamie is no stranger to racism in Chicago, but she has raised her son to live without fear; she worries about him learning to see himself the way Black people in the South are conditioned to.
Emmett is a cheerful kid, a born performer who has overcome a stutter. While his mother is anxious over them never having been apart for long, Emmett bristles with excitement about the adventure of a summer away from home. Mamie’s warnings about the “different set of rules” in Mississippi slide right off him, as does her urging to be extra careful around white people. “You can’t risk looking at them the wrong way. Bo, be small down there,” she tells him, using his affectionate family nickname.
The train ride to Mississippi — on which Emmett is accompanied by Mamie’s uncle, Mose Wright (John Douglas Thompson), known as Preacher — illustrates the abrupt curtailment of freedom as they cross a state line and all the Black passengers are ushered into a separate compartment. But Emmett remains virtually oblivious to the most blatant extremes of racial inequality, goofing around while Preacher and his sons pick cotton.
They laugh off his “city boy” antics until he steps into a grocery store in the sharecropper town of Money and offends the married white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), who follows him outside seething with outrage as she heads to her car to retrieve a gun.
In the many documentaries, books and other dramatic treatments inspired by the tragic case — including co-writer Beauchamp’s 2005 doc feature The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till — one constant has been the uncertainty over what actually took place inside the store. As depicted here, Emmett was just a guileless kid, his worst perceived offense being to wolf-whistle at Bryant, a brash act that stuns his cousins and other Black Mississippians gathered outside the store into nervous silence. But Bryant’s subsequent testimony on the witness stand — in which she has clearly been schooled by the defense to refer to Emmett as “the man” — gives a much more threatening version of the encounter.
The sensitivity with which Chukwu handles the violence notwithstanding, key scenes that follow the Bryant grocery store incident are tough to watch, notably the arrival of two armed white men at Preacher’s home in the middle of the night to haul off Emmett in the back of their pickup. And the screams heard by young field hand Willie Reed (Darian Rolle) as Emmett is tortured in a barn are bone-chilling.
Equally harrowing is the crushing blow delivered to Mamie when word of her son’s abduction is followed three days later by news that his body has been fished out of the river. Deadwyler’s howls of despair as the coffin containing Emmett is unloaded off a train in Chicago convey unspeakable pain.
But there’s also fortitude fueled by rage in Mamie’s response to the sight of her son — bloated and bludgeoned, his teeth smashed, his head grotesquely disfigured by a close-range gunshot. Her insistence on an open-casket funeral, so the world can see the atrocity she has seen, yields intensely moving images as crowds of mourners file past the coffin, gasping at the horrific sight of Emmett’s corpse — a sight afforded the film’s audience with great restraint. There’s an unspoken acknowledgment on the mourners’ faces that this could have been the son or brother or cousin of any of them.
The measured pacing established by Chukwu and editor Ron Patane works beautifully in the early sections as a mounting sense of dread takes hold, echoed in the sorrowful strains of Abel Korzeniowski’s rich, if often overwrought, orchestral score. Curt Beech’s production design and Marci Rodgers’ costumes provide evocative period detail, with a series of stylish dresses showing how Mamie has embraced a life that no doubt would have been largely inaccessible to her in the South at that time. And DP Bobby Bukowski’s carefully composed widescreen frames keep returning, with haunting insistence, to Deadwyler’s face, forcing us to see this horrendous crime through the eyes of a mother.
The screenwriters perhaps have set themselves an insurmountable challenge to find a comparable emotional charge following the funeral in their account of Mamie’s emergence as an activist. But the film becomes increasingly conventional as it traces her negotiations with the NAACP, the gradual awakening of her political conscience and her agreement to become a spokesperson for the organization, advocating for Federal antilynching laws.
Despite this, Deadwyler keeps you glued with her unflinching dignity in the face of every new affront, notably when the defense suggests that the body dragged out of the Tallahatchie was unidentifiable and that Emmett is still alive and in hiding. The actress brings impassioned conviction and a world of hurt to Mamie’s speech on the stand about the unmistakable ways in which a mother recognizes her child.
The script shows the embedded racism at work in the courthouse that meant there was never a chance of conviction — the coldly indifferent faces of spectators and jury; the frisking of Black trial participants for weapons, while white people come and go freely; the marked difference in respect when the defense questions “Mrs. Bryant” or “Mamie.”
Hall plays Emmett with an appealingly cheeky insouciance that makes him an instant target for white hatred in Mississippi, and Thompson is affecting as a man torn up by what happened yet agonizingly aware that his hands were tied if he wished to protect his own family. Other secondary figures are more limited in scope, including Goldberg (also a producer), Frankie Faison as Mamie’s father, Sean Patrick Thomas as her supportive partner and Kevin Carroll as a family friend who serves as a strategic NAACP liaison.
This is unequivocally Deadwyler’s film, and she gives what will surely be a career-making performance. Her balance of fragility and a strength that becomes even more staunchly protective after her son is taken from her gives the drama a bruised, beating heart that prevails even when the writing slips into predictable beats. Her characterization communicates a particular fear that will be familiar to so many Black mothers whenever their sons are away from them, as well as the unimaginable suffering when the worst of those fears come true.