Bringing true horror and tragedy to the big screen remains a difficult proposition. When executed perfectly, telling a story about real-world horrors guarantees the audience will leave the film upset. On the other hand, when poorly crafted, you run the risk of being exploitative. However, director Chinonye Chukwu brings humanity to one of the most brutal slayings in American history. With restraint towards showing violence yet forcing the audience to live with the results of these actions, Till strikes the balance. Told from the perspective of Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), we become privy to the difficult choice to grieve in private versus the impact of activism in our darkest moments.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till (Jaylen Hill) visits his family in Mississippi. After whistling at a white woman in a storefront, her husband and brother begin searching for Emmett. After they find him at the home of Mose Wright (John Douglas Thompson), they kidnap Emmett. They beat and lynch Emmett, dumping his body in a river. To tell this story, Till frames the events through Mamie Till-Mobley’s (Deadwyler) eyes. After her son’s brutal murder, Mamie faces pressure to use her son’s death to create real change.
The story of Till cannot be told without the incredible performance from Deadwyler. She delivers an instantly classic performance that hammers home the emotion. The raw vulnerability on display cannot be forgotten after you leave the theater. In many ways, it’s the performance of the year. Deadwyler’s command of emotion, gravitas, and heartbreaking hope creates one of the most nuanced and complete characters of 2022. Traditionally, biopic films are limited by their subjects, but Deadwyler creates a thorough portrait of Mame Till- Mobley that feels timeless. Despite the very clear and personal connections between Mame and Emmett, Deadwyler channels the loss of thousands of other mothers who lost their children to racial hate crimes. The scene of her seeing Emmett’s body for the first time should be taught in schools for its emotional power.
Director Chinonye Chukwu continues to showcase her talent as a director of emotionally impactful art. Following up the incredible Clemency with Till could be seen as a step back, but Chukwu engages with the well-explored material in unique ways. Her blocking forces us to engage with the horrors of the lynching and allows us to stay within the scene without dozens of cuts. This allows a natural rhythm and naturalistic emotional outpouring from the characters to develop on screen in front of us. This is not a director pulling the best of a dozen scenes to create a showcase performance. Instead, the long takes and slow-moving camera forces us to grapple with the ways we process grief and emotion on an individual level.
Additionally, her ability to frame Mamie creates an artistic achievement beyond typical biopic standards. DP Bobby Bukowski lights the actors and actresses to perfection. Frankly, there are few cinematographers today that can light scenes for people of color, let alone capture the vivid colors Chukwu wishes to place on the screen. The lush brilliance of the visuals helps Till stand out from typical biopic fare.
Around the middle of Till, the film slows significantly as it attempts to explore martyrdom, specifically black martyrdom, in American history. One imagines this is why Chukwu took on this film, as it opens big questions about the Civil Rights movement and those who led it. Perhaps the most intriguing stretch of the film takes place in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, an all-black town that crackles to life with 1950s modernism. Yet beneath the surface are questions of the incredible sacrifice that forced those who built the town from their neighboring residences. For every step forward in America, black men and women have paid in blood.
As Dr. T.R.M. Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith) explains to Mamie Emmett’s death stands to serve a larger purpose in the movement. Yet to achieve that purpose, Mamie must give up the son she knew to the movement, a final act of loss she struggles to agree to. Perhaps the most intellectually rich section of the film, Chukwu handles the discussion in thorough and frank terms. There is no running from the truth for Mamie. Either her son’s legacy can be lifted up by the movement, immortalizing him, but in the process, will tie him to an act of despicable violence for all eternity. He will never be Bobo again but instead will come to symbolize hatred unchecked.
When not hyper-focused on these discussions, the film’s second half drags at times. The monotony of the court proceedings is purposeful, yet it also grinds the film to a halt. Additionally, the film must work against history. We know the outcome before the court case even begins. While there are acts of courage in these scenes, we seemingly wallow in the racist underpinnings of systemic oppression. This feels like a “hat on a hat,” as Till has long established these ideas in more nuanced and effective montages. Finally, the casting of Haley Bennett as Carolyn Bennett distracts from the film. Even if Emmett’s claim “that she looked like a movie star” were true, there is no reason to exalt a woman responsible for such an atrocity by casting one of the few movie stars on the screen in her limited role.
Throughout Till, there are difficult shots and events that are difficult to swallow. However, this makes them all the more essential. The story of Till‘s death cannot be lost to history. Progress for racial justice takes decades, as seen by the fact that lynching only just became a federal crime in 2022. Bringing this story to life, coursing with emotion and loss, ensures the story of Emmett will not be forgotten any time soon.