TEXAS, USA — The most significant shot in director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till” comes about midway through – if not by the runtime, then by the narrative fulcrum – and it’s a tough one to endure.
At first we don’t have to, thanks to some artful blocking briefly shielding the audience from the horror inflicted upon the body of young Emmett Till, played by a radiant Jalyn Hall. Instead we see it in the face, hear it in the sobs and sense it in the resolve of his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), for whom the pain is strongest. Then, the camera, manned by Bobby Bukowski, slowly pans up... bringing us fully into the unsanitized aftermath of one of the last century’s most hateful acts of racist violence.
The moment, even as it’s expected, is shocking. It’s also a moment of reckoning—for Mamie, for American history and for the viewer. “Till” mostly works on conventional filmmaking fronts, save for the occasional bit of stiff writing and lapse in narrative priorities, and maybe would’ve remained as effective had Chukwu decided we would never see Emmett’s body, decided not to linger on it his open casket for what feels like forever, decided instead to bind her movie’s power entirely to Deadwyler’s sterling performance as a cautious Black woman who decides to finally confront the world beyond her Chicago home.
This is all true to history. Till-Mobley really did insist on an open-casket funeral. She did arrange for photos to be taken of her 14-year-old son’s body, before setting out to seek justice several states away. The photo did first appear in Jet magazine, a Black-focused publication, and you can still find the images today.
But they are given renewed power in the cinema, where the act of looking – and, by extension, not looking – is foundational, and remains foundational even as we relinquish some of our agency to the filmmakers who decide for how long we have to look, and in what manner, and through what lens. And, also, in a decision for Chukwu not entirely unlike that which Till-Mobley faced 67 years ago, what meaning we are to glean from the images we’re looking at; it’s intentional that we witness a few moments of Emmett’s harrowing final hours from a distance, doubly so when “Till” finally and fully shows us what’s left of the lively boy who found out too late just how hateful people can be. In a movie both haunted and powered by familiar truths about living in segregated America, that lingering shot practically shatters “Till’s” period-piece handsomeness—as if to suggest some cinematic rules are being broken.
The rules are numerous, to be sure. There’s an overly familiar polish to the movie’s recreation of 1950s Chicago, where Mamie and Elliott live far away from Southern threats until the boy goes to spend a few weeks with family there. Composer Abel Korzeniowski’s tireless score swells and creeps in precisely the places where you expect it to, and the script, while well-researched, uses the overarching importance – and inherent grisliness – of the Emmett Till story as a crutch to leap over any aspirations of diving meaningfully into the complex bureaucratic entanglements his killing sparked. It portends another story of Black tragedy and suffering from its opening moments, when a serene afternoon drive is interrupted by jarringly dissonant notes that vanish as quickly as they arrived. The prickly flourish returns later, as Chukwu zooms quickly into Mamie’s face after she sees Emmett off, her motherly anxieties taking over.
It’s scenes like these in which the challenge for a movie like “Till” rears its head: How do you dramatize without dehumanizing? How do you tell a true story of brutality while giving it artistic intention? The questions ring louder, as they should, as more filmmakers are provided the resources to create new movies about Black love, culture, community and resilience of a different kind. Directors like Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen stir with their artistry, but they’re forming new cinematic potential simply with the kinds of stories they’re telling.
Chukwu joins their ranks off the momentum of reorienting “Till” so that it’s told almost entirely through Mamie’s perspective, centering her in a story that ultimately comes to be about how a mother’s love for her son becomes justice for the soul of her country. The decision, and the exemplary performance from Deadwyler that justifies it, turns “Till” into a more dynamic watch than it otherwise might have been. Its most powerful moments push the viewer to consider this story beyond the front-page-headline tragedy. Its back pages and footnotes are what Chukwu and her cowriters, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, are most concerned with: how Mamie emerged from the safety of familiarity and marched into Mississippi for the ensuing trial, knowing full well that the odds were stacked against her.
That Deadwyler clues us in from the start – concern flickers behind her eyes after Emmett bounces out of their living room – establishes the arc her character will take with vital nuance and devastating subtlety. “The whole world has to see what happened to my son,” Mamie later says, eking out the words with equal parts conviction and remorse that she ever found herself in this position. The script’s more mechanical components – a rough-hewn characterization of her fiancé and generic this-is-the-moment histrionics – require nimbleness from the actress when “Till” the character study and “Till” the historical re-enactment spar, but Deadwyler’s performance is rarely less than layered even as the movie surrounding her is content skimming along the surface.
She’s at the peak of her abilities in a third-act long take that unfolds while Mamie testifies in the pivotal trial; her eyes dart to unknown places offscreen but may as well be stealing back to more peaceful times, and her smile is pulled back tight when challenged by white lawyers who know they’ve secured a win before ever stepping foot in the court. Mamie has accepted her new role in history after widening her perspective beyond the warmth of home. It’s a pivotal scene that anchors an unusually thoughtful movie about our willingness to look beyond what might be reasonably expected of us, even as “Till” unavoidably can’t help contradicting its own ideas.
"Till" is rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs. It opens in San Antonio theaters Friday. Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett.
Directed by Chinonye Chukwu; written by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp.
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