Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Stars: Danielle Deadwyler, Kevin Carroll, Haley Bennett
“Be small, down there,” Black Chicagoan mother Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) cautions her 14-year-old son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) as he prepares for a visit to the Southern state of Mississippi in the summer of 1955. The sentiment and the phrasing is subtly, crushingly telling of the two Americas in existence then and even now. The need not only to be careful around white people, but to limit one’s self. To be invisible. The insidiousness of racism stretching its tendrils over hundreds of miles through learned – and earned – reputation.
Emmett didn’t heed his mother’s advice, and was brutally lynched and thrown into the Tallahatchie river for making innocuous, boyish advances toward white storekeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). Till is the true story of this event and its aftermath for Mamie. Director Chinonye Chukwu is no stranger to serious, even stifling subject matter, having already brought us the suffocating yet brilliant death row drama Clemency. Still, the prospect of this reconstruction comes with some foreboding. Depictions of Black trauma onscreen teeter on a scale between necessity and cruelty. Sci-fi ponderance Antebellum, for instance, tipped too far toward the latter. But dealing with such real-life tragedies, is there any way to represent such events without leaning toward the inexorable misery encoded within?
Chukwu finds her way. For one thing, the brutal act itself is not visualised. This we are spared, though we are briefly shown Emmett’s shocking corpse. The disparity between the living and the dead Emmett staggers. Just as the spiritual loss of Emmett is evoked through contrast and juxtaposition. Even before the film’s title we see mother and son at play together within the same scene that Mamie gives her warning. This representation of joy – Black joy – is important to our universal understanding and empathy when such moments cannot and will not ever be repeated. Chukwu plays this beat without import or sentiment. But it is felt through the remainder of the picture. A warmth we will be reminded of, though it never truly escapes us.
For all the fragility of Memie’s grief, she can command a room, as when she is exposed to the bloated corpse of her son. It is this trait that draws spectators to her as a potential voice of positive change and reform, such as Reverend Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll). But Memie is, at first, dead centre in her own trauma. Enveloped by it. Deadwyler – who so impressed in a supporting role in Jaymes Samuel’s ravishing western The Harder They Fall – overflows with emotion here. Overwhelmed on first catching a glimpse of Emmett’s closed casket, she shrieks that her boy “can’t breathe” in there; the equation to George Floyd’s infamous dying cries in the summer of 2020 can’t help but surface in the mind, alerting viewers to the unending necessity of pictures such as this one.
Chukwu’s approach and depiction is – as those familiar with her previous work would expect – reserved and tasteful. Deadwyler’s performance is full and compelling, teetering only occasionally into the outsized modes of a prestige picture, which is how Till has been inevitably framed. The only other tilt toward handwringing melodrama comes, at times, from composer Abel Korzeniowski, who is on occasion perhaps too eager to mimic Deadwyler’s onscreen histrionic register. I should emphasise, however, that such instances from both key players are the exception rather than the rule. In the main this is as steely a work as Clemency, and cements Chukwu’s position among the forefront of America’s authors of cinematic social commentary.
But Till shouldn’t merely be narrowly perceived as an issues movie. It is one, and a furious one. But it is also a judicious portrait of human behaviour; the throes of suffering as endured by Memie, her growing resolve, and of the casual callousness that blithely manifests in those she meets when she journeys to Mississippi herself. Later on in her life Memie Till-Mobley became a vital voice in the battle for civil rights, but Chukwu’s focus is tightened to this most personal fight for justice. For a tonal equivalent, think of Jeff Nichols’ sensitively restrained Loving.
One of the crueller ironies of Till is the taciturn nature of the press. Emmett’s death is given spotlight, given voice across the nation as a human interest story. Something that the NAACP understandably wishes to capitalise on. But it might just as easily not have been Emmett. Might just as easily have been any number of similar crimes committed across the United States. The happenstance extends beyond the unfathomable lynching to the almost arbitrary sense of fortune afforded Memie and her family through media coverage they did not request. Fortune seems so churlish a word, however.
For all Deadwyler’s emotive channelling early in the picture, her most memorable work here comes near it’s end, when Memie is called upon to give testimony. Here Till takes on the trappings and formalities of the courtroom drama. The power in Deadwyler’s performance lies not in any manifestation of tears, but in her struggle for restraint. The curt control of her answers. Chukwe holds on here for a long, devastating take, lending an unblinking performance full court. It’s something of a powerful cap on a story that doesn’t have much of a natural crescendo.
Chukwe’s dedication to delivering difficult, searing material is impressive and admirable. Till is another elegant success. A southpaw or tonal swerve at this juncture might prove sensational. If one doesn’t manifest, however, we can consider ourselves in safe hands with whatever lures her abilities to illuminate and communicate next.