Most of us know the story of Emmett Till, albeit a very abridged version of it from history class. When we think of Emmett Till, the name has been reduced to a case study, that horrific picture of his injuries, a notch in the ladder of the civil rights movement. But as Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Till’s mother in the film, establishes early on, “he’s not just a case — he’s my son.”
And that’s what makes Till different from other movies based on a true story — or, more specifically, movies based on Black history. When Till was first announced, there were rightful concerns that this drama movie would just be one in a long line of films that marinate and revel in Black pain and historical trauma: treating the kind of racism and hate crimes that ran rampant in the 1950s as an object of consumption and entertainment.
But it soon becomes apparent that Till is a movie that pays tribute not just to Emmett but to his mother’s extraordinary achievements and contributions to the civil rights movement.
Whenever Jalyn Hall appears on-screen as Emmett Till, both in scenes prior to his death and imaginary sequences after, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski ensures that the screen is quite literally filled with warmth as Hall gives a stand-out performance as the charming, funny, and gentle Emmett — or, as we get to know him in this movie, as “Bo”: the real-life nickname given to him by his maternal grandmother which stuck after his birth.
In every scene Bo is in, despite it brimming with joy, there is a sense of foreboding because we, as an audience, know his fate — and it feels like in some sense that his mother does too. In the first act of the movie, director Chinonye Chukwu pairs scenes of Bo having fun with his cousins with dimly-lit sequences of his mother praying by her bed for her son’s safety or barely holding it together as she expresses to her fiance that she’s never been apart from her son for this long before.
The film’s tone, of course, shifts the moment Emmett comes face to face with the shopkeeper who ultimately engineered his murder, with Haley Bennett being able to portray the deep-seated hated and prejudice Carolyn Bryant feels about his very existence without a single word.
Her performance at the trial in the film’s final act is especially infuriating, as Bennett is putting on a performance of Carolyn Bryant putting on a performance, complete with white woman tears as she shamelessly fabricates her interactions with Till without anyone questioning her version of events.
As for the murder itself, Chukwu makes a conscious choice not to show what happened in too much detail — the lights on in the shed and the screaming are enough — which ensures that the movie highlights the horror of what took place without verging into trauma porn.
That being said, the film doesn’t avoid showing the full horror and impact of Till’s death, as the film shows Mamie viewing his body for the first time, which has been beaten and damaged beyond recognition. In the same way, Mamie is determined for people all over the world to see what they have done to Till; Chukwu refuses to shy away from the body either: the camera lingers as Mamie rediscovers her son under the bruising and the swelling, and we see several funeral attendees gasp and weep in horror at the state of the body at the open-casket funeral.
We may have seen the black and white photos before, but seeing the extent of hate-fuelled damage inflicted on this child in full colour only serves to remind us just how recent history this all is and that we can’t pretend that this is a type of hatred that no longer happens.
As the narrative shifts from the immediate aftermath of Till’s death to the trial, we are surrounded by a strong supporting cast playing key figures from the civil rights movement. Tosin Cole as Medgar Evers, for instance, plays an especially key role in the movie’s final act in the courtroom, but for all his strength and intelligence, he is also portrayed with a level of humanity which reminds us that they aren’t just figures in history books, but fully-rounded people with wives, kids, and families.
At the centre of all of this, however, is Mamie. Deadwyler’s deeply moving portrayal of a mother grieving is at the heart of this movie, which is only amplified by Chukwu’s stunning directing, particularly the portraiture shots of her.
Deadwyler’s raw, palpable heartbreak is just as present in moments where she collapses from the weight of her pain as it is in her steely determination to ensure her son gets justice at any cost: even if it means putting herself in danger by travelling down to Mississippi to testify. She leaves before the trial is even over, saying that she “knows what the verdict will be,” and again, while this may have been common knowledge for the audience, that doesn’t make the injustice of it all any less of a gut punch.
(Editor: minor spoilers ahead) When watching the penultimate scene, I thought that the movie would end on an inspirational note, with Mamie making a rallying speech about civil rights and committing herself to continue her advocacy work to raucous applause, but instead, it ends on a quieter note: with Mamie entering Emmett’s room, adorned with boyhood airplane wallpaper, and sees him one last time as he turns to grin at her.
This is because as much as Till is a tale of inspiration, with its focus on the tireless work of Mamie and the NAACP, Chukwu also starkly reminds us that this doesn’t undo the violence Till faced, and as much as he is a symbol of a turning point in the civil rights movement, he is also just a young boy who had his whole life ahead of him.
Amidst all the debate around whether a movie about Emmett Till is needed, the movie reveals in a pre-credit placard that the Anti-Lynching Act discussed in the movie, which classes lynching as a federal hate crime, only passed in March 2022; 67 years after Till’s death.
It’s also impossible to watch this film without thinking about how, despite Mamie’s tireless work, systemic racism, anti-Black attitudes, and hate crimes are still as continually pertinent today as they were back then — but are just presented in a different way.
People might want to comfort themselves about how “long ago” Emmett Till’s passing was, but the truth is, we still have a long way to go. We might not have been able to save Emmett Till, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, or Chris Kaba — but maybe one day, we’ll live in a world where violent racism really is a thing of the past.
Still, the film, at least to me, cries out for us to preserve Mamie’s legacy and ensure all her work was not in vain. That’s what makes the movie so essential, not just in illuminating us to this untold history but also in informing us how to move forward in the future.
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Danielle Deadwyler gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Mamie Till-Mobley.