I often have to reorient myself to the fact that fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered a mere ten years before my birth. It's devastating to think that practically within my lifetime this occurred, a fact that I thought about over and over and over again throughout Chinonye Chukwu's gripping Till.
The unease in Till comes early, perhaps because we already know how this is all going to turn out. The opening scene gives us Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, The Harder They Fall) innocently driving with Emmett (Jalyn Hall, John Henry) in their hometown of Chicago with the soft sounds of the Moonglows' "Sincerely" on the radio and a happy, spirited Emmett singing along. This is Chicago, a slightly more forgiving place place for such openly displays of joy by a young Black male. However, Emmett is about to be sent off to visit family in Money, Mississippi and such behavior won't be as easily embraced.
“Be small down there,” Mamie tells Emmett.
Of course, Emmett isn't inclined to small with his dapper dress and genuine smile. He's learned it from his mother, though he hasn't quite reached the age where he's aware of the sense of guardedness that is a constant companion to his mother. There's a quiet anxiety in Mamie's eyes as she worries. No, that's not accurate. There's a palpable sense of fear in Mamie's eyes as she knows.
It is only a week after Emmett's departure that Mamie will receive the news - Emmett, whom she called Beau, was missing. We know the rest, or at least we know what history has allowed us to know. Beau's Four days later,
One week later, Mamie received the news she had been dreading – her son was missing. When a horrifically mutilated body is pulled out of Mississippi's Tallahatchie River, there's never any doubt that it is Mamie's beloved Beau.
From the opening moments of Till, Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency) doesn't let us look away. It's not just Bobby Bukowski's lens that doesn't look away, though certainly it is absolutely unflinching, it's literally every frame of Till that is precise, intentional, and uncompromising. While Chukwu can't give Beau the justice he deserves, she can in some way exact cinematic justice by demanding relentless truth and fierce attention.
Cowriters Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp, and Chukwu focus less on the crime and piercingly on its aftermath. Till isn't always an easy film to watch, though in a world where we debate whether truths should be taught Till is a film that demands to be seen and it demands to be experienced.
Till is ultimately focused exactly where it should be - on a grieving mother who courageously opened herself up to share her son and that grief with a society who easily dismissed his death. When Mamie decided to pursue a justice that she instinctively knew would never arrive, she knew she was entering this place where there was no interest in justice and where she was surrounded by those who didn't care.
It is jarring to me that in all likelihood there are likely people sitting in Mississippi, Chicago, and the halls of Congress who will likely sit down to watch Till, if they dare and still say aloud "I still don't care."
We already know that the killers were found innocent, though we also know they later confessed in a Look magazine article to it and, in fact, were paid $4,000 for the confession.
Chukwu portrays the events that led up to the crime in a rather straightforward way, though it is best experienced on-screen rather than in a review. We know the basic facts and that it will be Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett, Swallow) with her false accusations that will lead to Beau being forcibly taken from his uncle's home three days later.
From the opening moments that we meet Mamie, it's abundantly clear that Chukwu is demanding that we understand what we can't possibly understand as this mother's grief fills the screen and Bukowski's lens follows her, unnervingly closely, and never lets her go. Paralyzed by grief, Mamie seems to initially resist sharing this grief, all that she has left of her son, with anyone else. It's only when she begins to even struggle to have her son's body returned home that she begins her transformative journey. ‘No one is going to believe what I just saw’ Mamie tells reporters outside, inviting a Jet photographer in to take a photo of her son’s disfigured corpse. No wait, that's wrong. Her son. Her son.
Despite knowing what to expect from locals, she travels to Money alongside her father (Frankie Faison, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain) and Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole).
Deadwyler's performance here is easily among the year's best performances. Deadwyler's transformation over the course of the film's 130-minute running time is nothing short of remarkable and her court testimony astounds with its discipline, emotion, and intensity. While courtroom scenes can go horribly awry, Chukwu knows exactly what she's going for her and she gets it out of both cast and crew. In a place where Mamie got justice or dignity, Chukwu demands both even if we know the decision to be handed down will not change.
While the film is clearly centered around Deadwyler's Mamie, her supporting cast is impressive including a breakout turn by Jalyn Hall as Beau and yet another impressive turn by Frankie Faison amidst a strong ensemble.
Bobby Bukowski's lensing is no doubt awardworthy while Abel Korzeniowski's original music for the film is sublimely paced and immersive. Curt Beech's production design will be debated, perhaps, but I find it perfection along with Ron Patane's exceptional editing work.
Some may very well argue there is no need for a film like Till, though the fact that anti-lynching legislation that was talked about not long after Beau's death only came to life as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act on March 29, 2022 is clear evidence that these truths still need to be remembered and taught and uncompromising in their presentation.
It's difficult to describe the experience of watching Till. The only word I can truly think of is "necessary."
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic