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A Mother’s Son
In 1955 Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago, was lynched in rural Mississippi by 2 white men on the specious grounds that the boy had made overtures to one of the men’s wives. His story is widely known because his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his remains be returned to Chicago and that his coffin be open for viewing, revealing his battered corpse—he had been bludgeoned, tortured, and shot in the head—horrifying the 100,000 who walked by his coffin and the millions who saw photos in the newspapers and on television. A film about these shocking events that took place in the early years of the Civil Right Movement is necessarily constrained by the facts of this hallowed story.
Above, Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as his mother,
dressed for the train that will take Emmett from Chicago to Mississippi.
“Till” approaches its sacred subject by telling it from the perspective of the boy’s mother. From start to finish, the filmmakers, including co-writer and producer Keith Beauchamp, who 17 years ago made the award-winning documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” home in on a widowed mother’s grief at the loss of her only child. Danielle Deadwyler is riveting as Mamie, exhibiting a complexity of character and wide range of emotions, emotions that plumb the depths of that unrelenting grief.
We are shown Mamie and Emmett’s solidly middle-class, Ektachrome life.
The opening scene is set in Chicago, with Mamie and Emmett shopping in a downtown department store. Hassled by a store guard, she demonstrates her willingness to stand up to racial slights. Well before the title, we are shown Mamie and Emmett’s solidly middle-class, Ektachrome life, their well-furnished house, her job in an otherwise all-white typing pool. Her mother (a cameo by a miscast Whoopi Goldberg, also a producer on the film) encourages her grandson to visit his cousins in Money, Mississippi, though Mamie is filled with foreboding about Emmett’s ability to understand the racist codes of the Deep South. Guilt is a major theme as well, and not only Mamie’s. In these opening scenes, Emmett is shown as a playful, soft-bodied, not-yet-sexual boy. Jalyn Hall, just 14 himself, is winning as the gap-toothed, sometimes provocative, sometimes goofy, always innocent Emmett Till.
Above, winning Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till,
outside the Mississippi store where his fateful encounter occurred.
In Mississippi Emmett has the fateful encounter with store clerk Carolyn Bryant (an appropriately smug Haley Bennett). The kidnaping and later murder—presented only through evocative darkness and sound—follow.
The scene of her in the mortuary is a pietà.
Mamie enlists the help of the NAACP and its political ties to find her son, and once she learns he has died, to return his remains to Chicago. The scene of her in the mortuary is a pietà. She hovers over his disfigured body, touching every part of it beginning with his feet, before making the remarkable decision to show her mangled, dead son to the public.
Mamie denounces the way the black body is treated in America—an understandable citation to Black Lives Matter.
At that point Mamie is not a political activist, and even with this decision, she resists the ill-timed efforts of the NAACP to urge her to take on that role. What she wants is justice for her son, not justice for the world. She also decides to go to Mississippi, a choice that could put her at risk, to testify at the trial of the 2 white men. Even at the trial, the focus is on her as a mother, and on a mother’s intimate knowledge of her child’s physical being. In her filmic, rather than historical, testimony, she denounces the way the black body is treated in America—an understandable citation to Black Lives Matter).
The trial itself is oddly presented.
The narrative fashions a transformation of Mamie from a woman concerned only about her own family to a civil rights activist, but that is not the arc that carries this film. The soul of this story is her deeply entrenched grief, her never-ceasing motherhood. Perhaps for that reason, the trial itself is oddly presented. The 2 defendants are faceless white menaces, the presentation of evidence lacks continuity, and the testimony of Carolyn Bryant is not only irrelevant to the verdict but legally non-sensical. Director Chinonye Chukwu introduces the viewer to a cadre of NAACP giants, including Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), and to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, a revealing look into the efforts of blacks to live with dignity in the Deep South. None of that is particularly useful or effective in telling Mamie’s story. Those looking for a legal drama will be disappointed; this is all about a mother and her boy.
Above, Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Hill-Mosely, who became a spokesperson.
The arc of the film that emphasizes her transformation to an activist
is swallowed up by the story of a mother's grief.
“Till” is more of a piece with recent period films on the black experience—“Passing” (2021), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018)—than with the making of an activist. Though the project was pitched as early as 2015, the film was finally made because of the 2020 killing of George Floyd. There is a tension through most of the film between the institutions that want Mamie to be a standard bearer, and her instinct to deal with her personal tragedy by seeking justice only for her son. The real-life Mamie Till-Mosely became a spokesperson on behalf of civil rights for all blacks, but with Deadwyler’s strong performance, motherhood and grief—and a love of, and defense of, the black body—dominate the narrative.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Starring: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Whoopi Goldberg, Haley Bennett, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Tosin Cole
Country: United States
Runtime: 130 minutes
Other Awards: One nomination to date