Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Whoopi Goldberg, Haley Bennett.
From Sundance, Grand Jury-prize-winning Nigerian-American film director Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”) comes “TILL,” an examination of the experiences of Emmet Till’s mother in the aftermath of her son’s death by lynching in 1955. Starring Danielle Deadwyler (“Station Eleven,” “The Harder They Fall”) as Mamie Till-Mobley and Jalyn Hall (“Space Jam: A New Legacy”) as Emmett Till, with outstanding support from Whoopi Goldberg (“Star Trek: Picard,” “The Color Purple”) as Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan, Frankie Faison (“Luke Cage,” “The Wire”) as Mamie’s father John Carthan and with a notable turn by Jayme Lawson (“The Woman King, “The Batman”) as Myrlie Evers, the wife and future widow of Medgar Evers.
Famous worldwide as a symbol of an innocent victim of racist violence, Emmet Till’s story has been told with increasing frequency in recent years, both in print and on the screen. For the first time, Emmet’s mother’s story is told. “TILL” provides the valuable service of placing Emmet Till’s life and death in the larger context of African-American life in segregated America and of Mamie Till-Mobley’s unsung role in bringing her son’s murder to the public as a moral lesson and a symbol of the need for change.
Opening in the relative peace and prosperity of Mamie and Emmet’s life in Chicago in 1955, the film provides a welcome glimpse of a happy family in a nurturing community with only a few select moments of racial prejudice marring their lives. A portrait is painted of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a bright, loving, well-mannered boy with a carefree spirit who is carefully nurtured and cherished by his single mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in company with his grandparents and assorted friends and neighbors. The end of this idyll begins when Emmett leaves Chicago in the company of his Uncle and cousins, bound for a summer spent with them in the rural community of Money, Mississippi. Emmett encounters the happiness of life with his older cousins and the less familiar experience of open racism in the segregated Delta community. Unfamiliar with his standing as a young black man in the South, Emmett’s innocent interaction with a white shopkeeper at a general store set in motion events that began with his murder and led to an invigorated Civil Rights movement and continue to this day, 67 years later.
“Till” provides the valuable service of placing Emmet Till’s life and death in the larger context of African-American life in segregated America and of Mamie Till-Mobley’s unsung role in bringing her son’s murder to the public as a moral lesson and a symbol of the need for change.
Produced as a period piece with impeccable attention to 1955-era clothing, hairstyles, environments, and mores, “TILL” provides an effective if sanitized window into the recent past. Naturalism in dialogue and setting are lacking; everything is placed to frame and depict an idealized image of people and places that were a bit more touched by wear and use, informality, and regional accents. This tendency of the director and the screenwriter Keith Beauchamp (“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till”) sometimes pulls “TILL” in the direction of hagiography; happily, the warm and low-key performances by a standout cast of stars and supporting players grounds the film in emotional truth, mitigating the occasionally obvious expository speech. “TILL” has a lot of contexts to provide for younger and foreign viewers, and the film balances the information dumps with finesse.
Focusing on the subject of Emmett Till’s mother, family, and community allows “TILL” to make a now familiar story fresh and even more effective as a historical lesson. If anything, it makes Emmett Till’s story even more tragic and universal by recreating the human world that produced and killed him. A solid drama that can be enjoyed by viewers both familiar with and new to the heartbreaking story that it tells.