As many high school teachers will attest, we could never shy away from historical faults of the past. Merely confront them, no matter how painful or embarrassing to witness. Dramas of this type on the big screen are always hit and miss to thematically punch the gut. Every once in a while, there’s one to book screens with the same daring and forward thinking as 10th grade curriculum. Less often does a film breach this territory with a deep emotional framework, its perception cemented not so much with the victim, or the perpetrators. Instead, Till takes a finite curveball, swinging to focus on the stoically vocal third party taking civil vengeance and social action. That statement might sound riddled with the corniness of a Lifetime movie. The pain and frustration one would experience with this material, however, supplants any manner of formulaic doubt. It certainly had this writer needing to collect themselves, slowly, by the credit scroll.
And it does open rather chummily, innocuously. 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) is a charming kid with endless optimism living in mid-50s Chicago. The downside with that? He’s oblivious to any sort of backwards racial or societal rules outside the big city. That does elevate mother Mamie’s (Danielle Deadwyler) separation anxiety when her son looks to spend a few days in their old Mississippi haunts. She pleads to his son, nicknamed Bo, not to cross a line, don’t look anyone the wrong way. His joyful overconfidence does get the better of him, to the point where polite-ish gestures to a small town shop owner’s wife (Haley Bennett) are taken the wrong way. Matter of fact, the worst way, by virtue of kidnapping and murder.
At no point does writer/director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency) shift her complete focus onto the cycle of violence Emmett’s lynching would co-exist in. We acknowledge its existence from afar, behind closed doors, with the faintest of screams. What’s louder is the reaction from Mom, seeing the casket return home, an ear piercing shriek signaling the deepest, bone-rattling demeanor of grief and scourge. That’s where her lens zooms toward, bucking an all-too-familiar handicap with similar historical dramas.
Like it were a bad joke with a vacant punchline, any other director would obsess on the criminal proceedings with the proficiency of a Dateline long-form. Chukwu keeps perspectives at their most candid, squaring them all on the previously untold accounts of Mamie and her expressive cycling through unfiltered familial affliction. All the way through desperate attempts to try Emmitt’s murderers in an unfair court, this mother remains firmly on the ball channeling the torment of losing her only son to reasonable advantage.
And that may only be one method to Deadwyler’s sound-minded fury. A single adjective would be far from enough to encapsulate the very breadth of her performance. Enthralling, captivating, and resonating from beginning to end. Down to her nuanced facial expressions does she glitter on screen, Every time Chukwu and DP Bobby Bukowski (Land) close in to their subject, it’s a delicate equalizer sustaining her penchant for purpose, composing her mentality between busier scenes and quiet. The former, she does not relent, her clarity infectious alongside legal counsel Medgar Evers (an electric Tosin Cole). She’s vocal, she’s loud, and she’s deliberate to address her outrage, unite a community. Going open casket at the funeral with injuries fully visible is easily the most direct case, determined to get as many eyes on the debauchery as she can, despite the cultural barrier. The latter sees her more composed, if not also vulnerable, often robbed of the words to eloquently unleash while quivering with the adherent reality in play. The first reaction to Emmitt’s death is nothing less than an accurate exercise in cold shock. The sort where both mind and soul freeze in place like a sheet of ice breaking on a flat surface. Her actions, her very precise body language alone does more to define her inquisitiveness, searching for honest answers, reaffirming her motherly instincts to best apply a burgeoning civil rights movement.
What ended in Mamie’s mind as a crusade for protection, looking to criminalize harm to another based on race or color, begins as a cautionary tale to mind one’s surroundings. The parallels to modern headlines and even modern parenting run very deep, often profound and heady. Chukwu might not lean too heavily on the thought provoking aspect for too long, even if Mamie’s dedication says different. The goal is more to capture a momentary atmosphere that would remind audiences we may be ahead of the game, though still navigating rough seas toward parity. Times may change numerically, but never altruistically, with individuals perpetually at opposing ends.
Chukwu sees an opportunity to shine that division not entirely on external perceptions, but on those in Mamie’s immediate family circle who all but struggle to see her reasoning. Her mother Alma (a very intrinsic Whoopi Goldberg) is one to ask “what about my child?” almost selfishly, as Mamie dares to travel solo for the trial, placing herself in careful danger. Proof that support must be balanced with polarization, as Bennett’s quietly scathing turn will attest. Cole and Jayme Lawson (as Mrs. Evers) do plenty to neutralize any adherent anxiety, their empathy and logic emphasizing the matriarch’s drive after the son’s exit. Hall’s presence feel akin to a real ray of sunshine, unpredictable though heartwarming amid the unkempt tragedy. For his brief time on screen, he ties the picture together; his nascent spirit shines over rest of the way.
To say this film tethers itself deeply to its myriad of emotions is perhaps an understatement. Its very heart is pierced in the center by its staging of grief, tortured by its swipes with regret, healing in a hurry by its activism. Till rolls with a familiar template, a true-life event, and intertwines both with a visceral, heartbreaking edge. I was skeptical, nearly dreading its leap into history. Chukwu takes a few triumphant risks in line with her heroine, escaping with outcomes as substantial as the facts. They do still hurt, gut-wrenchingly. Its duality of glory and sorrow did leave me dizzied by the final end, walking out of the theater slowly, with a melancholic aire. It leaves one feeling the same way Mamie was – frustrated, saddened, but unwavering in resolve. For all we’ve gained, lost, and had to learn again in the ongoing equality struggle, what plays out here only stands to remind us why it’s worth fighting, compassion fervently behind the wheel. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Till expands into wide release October 28; rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs; 130 minutes.