Movie Review: A Too Timely History Lesson provided by the death of Emmett “Till”

“Till” is a period piece that reminds us of a time when an image could shock the conscience of a nation. It’s an object lesson that chills when we realize this isn’t ancient history, that this happened within living memory, that had he lived, young Emmett Till would’ve been 81 this year.

And the law that made his murder at long last illegal nationwide, a law named The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, only passed in March of this year.

Chinonye Cukwu, who directed the very fine “Clemency,” brings us the same sort of spare, narrowly-focused drama here, a story of a Chicago mother who worried about what might happen when her child visited relatives in Mississippi, and had her worst worries come true.

Danielle Deadwyler, electrifying in the indie thriller “The Devil to Pay,” gives a breakout performance as Mamie Till-Mobley, a doting widowed mom utterly charmed by her outgoing, irrepressible 14 year-old son, Emmitt (Jalyn Hall of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”).

But like Black mothers in 1955 Chicago, and today, she had to give him “the talk” before sending him South to visit his country cousins back in her native Mississippi.

“They have a different set of rules” down there, she begins. “Be extra careful,” something that does not seem to sink in to the 14 year-old. Emmett would rather dance along to the record player, which reminds us, “What 14 year-old wouldn’t?”

Her last warning gives us pause, and might even get through to her bubbly son.

“Be small down there.”

But once in Money, Mississippi, Emmett cuts up with his cousins when he’s supposed to be picking cotton. And when they all gather at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, Emmett forgets himself and forgets where he is. The owner (Haley Bennett of “The Girl on the Train”) looks “like a movie star,” and he has the temerity to tell her.

And when he has the gall to whistle, worlds collide, Emmett Till’s fate is sealed and America is shocked at the horrible price this child pays for stepping out of line in the racist South.

We see the first crime committed against him — kidnapping — and hear the second. We don’t see the half-hearted “search” by local law enforcement. From here on out, this is Mamie’s story — her grief, her doggedness, her fateful decision that “everybody” needs to see her son’s mutilated corpse once he’s fiund.

Racism’s ugly violence would be exposed on a Jet Magazine cover, in newspapers and on TV. And a country that had treated this open sore with a shrug would be forced to confront it.

Chukwu turns this much-told story into an intimate film of extreme closeups of faces bearing up under racism or cowering from its worst consequences, of fear and defiance and paroxysms of grief.

We don’t need to hear about J. Edgar Hoover’s dismissal, at first, of requests for help, of the Eisenhower administration’s slowness to act. We see Mamie make decisions that shock her mother (Whoopi Goldberg, who produced “Till”), her divorced and remarried father (Frankie Faison) and her barber-beau (Sean Patrick Thomas).

We see the first requests for assistance from the politically-connected local NAACP (figures played by Kevin Carroll and Keith Allen Bolden), and the steps Mississippi locals, led by a genteel but fiery local doctor and activist (Roger Guenveur Smith) and civil rights icon Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) take to keep Mamie safe when she travels South to testify in the trial of those who killed her son.

Chukwu keeps the scale small and the story deeply personal, a family riven by grief and in the case of the uncle, “Preacher,” (John Douglas Thompson) who wasn’t able to protect Emmett in Mississippi, gut-wrenching guilt.

“Till” tells an epic story in simple, unfussy strokes, an important film more concerned with building a feeling of dread than in dazzling us with fireworks. It hews close to a single point of view — Mamie’s — and avoids the pitfalls of many a story set in this era by the simple fact that there was no “white savior” figure who was a part of this narrative.

The mostly-unnamed, pink-faced and murderously racist white Mississippians circle their wagons around the still-living Carolyn Bryant’s lies, and Bennett takes care to let us see nothing but the “banality of evil” in her.

It’s an actor’s picture. Hall lets us understand a child “brought up without fear” in a relatively progressive midwestern city, utterly unequipped for the “rules” of a violently racist patriarchy. Deadwyler internalizes the bravery that changed a middle class working mom to a civil rights warrior whose blunt “I want them to see” what they did to her child, shocked the world and changed
America. Our star makes sure her character breaks your heart.

And as Chukwu keeps her camera on Mamie, she turns a blow against racism into a history lesson with human faces — good, poisonous, and so mutilated that we have to be forced to see it to understand our culture’s ugliest truth.

Rating: PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs.

Cast: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Haley Bennett, Frankie Faison, Roger Guenveur Smith and Whoopi Goldberg.

Credits: Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, scripted by Michel Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chinonye Chukwu. An Orion/MGM release.

Running time: 2:10

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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