Films and stories based on real-life events and people remind us of a forgotten or, in the case of Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” now in theaters, a moment in history that has been swept away.
Based on a story from Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp, and Chukwu, “Till” is told from a unique perspective: Mamie Till, played with great love, passion, and quiet fierceness by Danielle Deadwyler. The actress channels a mother’s love, first as a note of caution and second as a platform to stand up for racial injustice following the gruesome lynching of her son, Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall).
Chukwu follows up her esteemed “Clemency” with “Till,” an important social piece, reminding us that not all are equal within the Great Experiment known as the United States. Primarily used to guide us through events, Mamie and Emmett have a great mother-son relationship. Deadwyler’s take on the role is full of caution for her son as Emmett prepares for a vacation to Mississippi with family. Hall, on the other hand, has a very sunny disposition. His performance doesn’t suggest that he is invincible, but he is perhaps not fully cognizant of just how dangerous the world was then and still is today. He is a teenager and, as such, should be expected to live a carefree life.
As the film starts, you can immediately see Mamie’s status in life: educated, employed, defiant, protective, and widowed. Deadwyler wears a lot of emotions on her sleeve, and the impact of Chukwu’s direction and Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography captures the essence of her eyes and facial movements. Living in the Chicago area in the mid-50s, references are made to life at that time. Although people moved about together, there was still tension and objection from a store clerk when Mamie and Emmett visited a department store for Emmett to get a wallet.
Deadwyler wears pain when she finally relents to Emmett’s fateful trip. You can see the actress’s gears turning with fear and protection. Love and reluctant acceptance overcome her facial expressions. Her performance is one of the more cinematic of the year, owing to the real-life story, researched by Keith Beauchamp over 27 years. His efforts led to the Department of Justice reopening the case in 2004. The production was guided by Till’s cousin, an eyewitness to the event, Simeon Wright until he died in 2017.
Emmett knows of life in the North, of relative freedom of movement; he is not prepared for life in the South leading to carelessness. Chukwu’s story delineates the distinction exceptionally well, using it as a catalyst for Mamie’s care for her son and her reactions following his death.
Chukwu, rightfully, does not depict Emmett’s death. The director does show events leading up to his capture, including his whistle at Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) and the open casket at Emmett’s funeral. The director injects a small amount of hope in certain parts of the story, balancing it with the impending tragedy. By using this route, the supporting cast can stand up next to Deadwyler in the character’s time of grief and her ultimate resistance to the white mobs of the South.
Frankie Faison plays John Carthan, Mamie’s father, who accompanies her to Mississippi for the trial. Maternal and paternal protectiveness shows its hand as Mamie readies herself as an eyewitness. Faison is forcefully understated, offering the same care toward Mamie as Mamie led Emmett. In contrast, Whoopi Goldberg’s Alma, Mamie’s mother, vehemently objects to Mamie’s travels to defend her son and to show the nation what really happened. Chukwu managed to distill generational parentage, which we see at the film’s beginning in her parents’ protective postures for their daughter.
As our attention shifts to the trial, Mamie’s defiant position, and political organizations charge her up in the second and third acts, the narrative loses its focus. The take on Mamie Till shifts from concerning love to grief to defiance very rapidly and does not leave time for an audience to process the emotions, owing to the anticipated notion of events to come.
“Till” does not depict a fictional outburst similar to what has been displayed on the news in recent years. The film is respectful of its source material and understands the importance of its message. Elements of fictionalization are introduced to strengthen the narrative. Mamie’s reactions feel like she is goaded into specific responses rather than being on a mission to see justice for her son. Deadwyler does overcome these aspects in her performance, but the narrative never recovers.
“Till” serves as a gateway to atrocities and fights for civil rights from our past. This lesson was not taught in school when I was a kid, and I am saddened. Chukwu’s eye is geared toward the visuals, capturing a very strongly stated performance from Danielle Deadwyler, reminding those who will see the film of what is truly at stake and why “Till” is as relevant to modern society as it was to the nation as the story broke on the news at the time. As strong as Mamie Till was, the film does not adequately do her justice.