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Culture » Film Reviews

Without Turning Away

Till turns an ugly American moment into a chance to look violent racism in the face.

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ORION PICTURES
  • Orion Pictures
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For just a moment, it feels like director Chinonye Chukwu's Till might let us off the hook. In the wake of the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) while visiting cousins in 1955 Mississippi, the body has been returned to Chicago, to be identified by his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler). As the sheet is pulled back, Chukwu obscures the body with the rail of another gurney in the morgue; perhaps we'll be spared the horrible sight that greeted Mamie. Then, the camera moves ever so slightly upward, bring the bloated, beaten corpse into full view—not just for a brief glimpse, but long enough that the viewer has to decide whether to look away.

In a sense, that filmmaking choice in Till echoes the one that Mamie made, choosing to bring the image of Emmett's disfigured body into the public consciousness and becoming a driving force behind the first post-Reconstruction federal civil rights legislation in 1957. But it's also part of a scene that becomes a focal point of the quiet intensity that characterizes both the protagonist and Chukwu's film as a whole. While the general earnestness of the story might come off a bit flat at times, it draws an emotional force from the reality of having to look the body of Emmett Till full in the face.

We do also get to look him in the face as a living, fun-loving teenager before those horrifying events, as Chukwu and co-screenwriters Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp emphasize the close relationship between Emmett and his war-widowed mom. It's important, though, that Till doesn't suggest some idyllic world from which Emmett was torn. The very first scene, of Emmett and Mamie singing along together in the car to The Moonglows' "Sincerely," dissolves into dissonant strings and a look of dread on Mamie's face as she ponders the impending Mississippi trip. Even in Chicago circa 1955, the two encounter race-based suspicion while shopping in a department store. And as the trip looms, Mamie gives Emmett "the speech" about how to behave among racist white people in order to avoid trouble—something contemporary parents are still having to do to protect their Black sons.

It would have been understandable if a version of this story had then chosen to emphasize the murder itself as a centerpiece moment, but that's not on Chukwu's agenda; in the dark of night, she shoots the exterior of a house from a distance, the cries of anguish from Emmett somehow becoming more unsettling for what we don't see. Instead, Till makes the story about Mamie's response to that horror, and Chukwu centers Deadwyler's performance whenever possible. That's most evident in the scene where Mamie testifies at the trial of Emmett's murderers, where Chukwu doesn't cut away one time while both the prosecution and the defense question her, allowing the sense of Mamie's isolation in this moment to amplify both her tears and her refusal to snap when the defense insinuates that Mamie might have wanted Emmett dead for insurance money.

That moment could certainly play as excessively "actor-ly"—it's easy to imagine it being the clip that gets played during the rundown of Oscar nominees—and Deadwyler does face a challenge in finding both the grieving mother and the budding activist in Mamie. For all the big emotional breakdowns, however, Deadwyler's work might be strongest before Emmett's death, as she lives in perpetual anxiety for Emmett's well-being in a place built to consider him disposable. As effectively as Till conveys the idea that almost all activists become so reluctantly, it also captures living as a parent with that perpetual shadow of fear that you'll be one of those people pushed into that spotlight.

It is perhaps inevitable that a subject as serious as Till's will involve some filmmaking that leans toward the overly reverential, and Chukwu does lay on Abel Korzeniowski's score a bit thick at times. There's also clunky expository stuff like Mamie telling her Mississippi driver, "Thanks, Mr. Evers," receiving the response, "Call me Medgar." But the tone and pacing mostly work here, including the willingness to linger on Mamie's encounter with Emmett's corpse, filled more with gentle touch than with disgust. She sees not a grotesquerie, but her son—just as Mamie asked the world to do 67 years ago, and as Till asks us to do now.