TILL – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


TILL – Review

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(L to R) Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Mobley and Whoopi Goldberg as Alma Carthan in TILL, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, released by Orion Pictures. Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pictures. © 2022 ORION RELEASING LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The heart-breaking true story drama TILL is the long overdue telling of Emmett Till’s story. We all know the name Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered by white Southern racists for whistling at a white woman in 1955. But the reason we know his name is his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who made the decision to have an open-casket funeral and, further, to see to it that the whole country could see exactly what was done to her son by allowing Jet Magazine to publish photos. Director Chinonye Chukwu, however, made the inspired decision to focus on Emmett Till’s mother rather than the murder, and how she made her son’s murder a lightning rod for the Civil Rights movement.

At it’s heart, TILL is the story of a mother’s love, her grief and rage at the murder of her son, and her determination that his death will have lasting meaning.

Director Chinonye Chukwu also chose not to show the murder itself but to focus on what happened afterwards, as well as Mamie Till -Mobley transformative jouney. The film handles events in this true story with great sensitivity but without diminishing the emotional power. This profoundly moving, true-story stars Danielle Deadwyler as Emmett Till’s mother Mamie, in a moving, charismatic, even electrifying central performance which should be a breakout role for her. Director Chukwu often brings her camera close in on Deadwyler’s face, allowing us to see the subtle play of complex emotions on Deadwyler’s face. TILL also recreates, in a vivid way, a palpably real sense of the era of lynchings and Jim Crow in the Deep South, and draws stark contrasts between the mother and son’s life in Chicago and life for Black people in Mississippi in 1955. The director’s creative, deeply emotional cinematic approach reveals the kind of bravery and determination this grieving mother displayed as she sought for justice for her only child.

Left a widow when her son’s father was killed during World War II, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) was a single mother raising her only child Emmett (Jalyn Hall) in Chicago while working for the Air Force, with the help of her mother Alma Carthan (Whoopi Goldberg). Her boisterous, outgoing 14-year-old son is planning a trip with his cousins to visit relatives in Mississippi, where his mother grew up. Mamie is worried, keenly aware of how different things are for Black people in the Jim Crow South unlike her son who was raised in more open Chicago. She is concerned that her son is just not listening to her about how dangerous it can be. Although Emmett tells his mother he is listening, we can see he isn’t, too excited about the trip to pay close attention. She remains nervous, almost changes her mind about letting him go, but finally agrees after being reassured by her mother and her fiance Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas) that he will be safe with family, who will keep an eye on him.

In Mississippi, things do go wrong when the cousins visit the little town of Money, stop at a white-owned shop. While his cousins play outside, Emmett talks with the pretty white woman behind the counter. Outside the shop, Emmett whistles when the shop clerk emerges, and his shocked cousins quickly bundle him off, hoping that since he is a stranger, no one will be able to find him. But eventually, they do find him, and kidnap him from his great uncle’s country home.

The NAACP becomes involved in the search for Emmett Till, although his mother Mamie resists being made into a “cause” for Civil Rights. All she wants is her boy back, and she does a good job standing up for herself despite the pressure and her emotional turmoil.

Along the ways, she meets and befriends young activists Myrlie (Jayme Lawson) and Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole). When her son’s body is found in a river, the authorities want to quickly bury him in Mississippi but Mamie insists that they return him to her in Chicago. Seeing his disfigured body prompts her to decide the whole world needs to see what was done to him.

Danielle Deadwyler is truly impressive in these moments, and also as she is transformed by her grief into a force in the Civil Rights movement, becoming a teacher and an activist. Deadwyler is in nearly every scene after the discovery of the boy’s body, and powerfully takes us through this emotional transformation. The director wisely keeps her at the center of the story, and handles this difficult material with dignity and a strong hand, transforming a tragic event into an inspirational, uplifting tale of speaking out against hate.

The story is well structured and beautifully photographed, with careful attention to period details in costumes and sets. Deadwyler’s Mamie is always impeccably dressed and poised, even retaining her dignity in the most distress, breaking our hearts. Cinematography is impressive, and the film has an unexpected beauty, particularly in scenes where Mamie is recalling her son and their close relationship.

While the director keeps the murder at a distance by keeping the camera outside the cabin where we briefly hear sounds of a beating, she pulls no punches with Emmett’s brutalized corpse, an appropriate choice given his mother’s ground-breaking decision. The scenes around that decision and of the funeral, attended by thousands, are among the most moving and unforgettable in this drama.

This is a very emotionally powerful film, creatively telling its historical story in a strikingly effective way. The true-story drama starts after the murder but quickly flashes back to the beginning, filled with a sense of foreboding and tension. The film works to heighten the feeling of tragic decisions in the first half and Mamie’s determination in the second half. In the South, we get a clear sense of Emmett as a fish-out-of-water but the events that leads to tragedy comes out of the blue. The director makes a deliberate choice not to show the murder, which makes the impact of the scenes of boy’s dead body all the more powerful.

Creative framing and the use of close-in shots combines with the fine performances to make this film gripping and heartbreaking. While the rest of the cast are fine, the spotlight is on Danielle Deadwyler, who gives a star-making performance as Mamie. Deadwyler gives Mamie both heartbreaking humanity and a steely power beyond the ordinary. But it is worth noting that Whoopi Goldberg gives a quiet, moving performance as Emmett’s grandmother, in a well-crafted small role.

We know the details of the murder and funeral but what happened after the murder is less well known. Here the film fills in the blanks masterfully, showing how the determined Mamie and others helped make this murder a pivotal point for Civil Rights. Following Mamie’s journey from grieving mother into a woman determined to use her loss to transform the nation is heartbreaking and inspiring stuff.

TILL is an impressive drama on many levels, and seems destined for awards attention, but particularly for Danielle Deadwyler’s heartbreaking and inspiring performance as a mother who turned personal grief into something transformative for social change.

TILL opened Friday, Oct. 21, in theaters in St. Louis and nationally

on Oct. 28.

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars