- Directed by Chinonye Chukwu
- Written by Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chinonye Chukwu
- Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall and Frankie Faison
- Classification PG; 130 minutes
- Opens in theatres Oct. 21
Two stars are born in Till, a wrenching new drama that explores the aftermath of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s horrific assault and lynching in 1955 Mississippi – punishment, the story went at the time, for the young Black boy daring to whistle at a white woman.
The first star here is filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu herself, who quickly and confidently establishes a visual language in her third feature (after the 2019 prison drama Clemency and 2012′s family drama alaskaLand) that is startling and beguiling – all prolonged close-ups, mirror images, and a keen sense that what is not captured onscreen is just as important as what is. It helps, certainly, that Chukwu has found the perfect star to be the focus of nearly every one of her film’s carefully staged, emotionally gruelling scenes: Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Emmett’s mother Mamie with such a profound and raw intensity that the actress (best known until now for her work on television’s Station Eleven) instantly cements her status as one of the most exciting performers working today.
Regrettably, both director and star are constantly fighting uphill battles in Till, which is saddled with a thoroughly conventional screenplay whose narrative energies only rarely attempt to match the incendiary intensity of the history that it obviously cares so much about retelling. Chukwu has a co-writing credit on the script – which also lists as co-writers producer Michael Reilly and documentarian Keith Beauchamp (whose years of work researching the case led to the film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till) – but it is clear that her ambitions, and talents, stretch far beyond the page, thank goodness. Till is the kind of film that risks falling into myriad tragic-true-story tropes, yet is saved time and again by a heightened sense of directorial ambition, matched measure for measure with a powerhouse lead performance.
Focusing not so much on the murder of young Emmett than the legal and cultural aftermath of his death, Till sets itself up with a supremely challenging task: How do you make a film about generations worth of trauma inflicted upon Black Americans without essentially retraumatizing that same audience. What is the balance between exposure and exploitation – between telling history and merely repeating it?
This is an especially delicate situation given the highly disturbing specifics of the Till case: After her son’s body was shipped back to the Till family’s Chicago home from Mississippi in an almost unrecognizable state – beaten, mutilated, bloated – Mamie decided to hold an open-casket funeral for members of the public. The idea: to let the rest of America witness the physical result of such hate-fuelled violence. To have her son’s murder not be forgotten when the news cycle moves on.
To tell the Till family’s story on film, then, is to reckon with horror while at the same time refusing to become a horror show itself. By not filming Emmett’s murder – we only hear the cries of the young boy (Jalyn Hall) from a distance after he is kidnapped from his uncle’s house by a gang of locals – and then slowly, carefully and sensitively revealing the exact state of his corpse, all through the perspective of his grieving mother, Chukwu achieves just this kind of necessary cinematic balance.
This means that Till is never a remotely easy viewing experience, though it is always a compelling one. As Mamie is forced to not only endure the various stages of grief but is also then enlisted to help fight for racial justice via a group of civil rights activists who see Emmett’s case as a touchstone in America’s poisoned history of race relations, Chukwu’s film stews in uncomfortable but essential truths.
Through it all, Deadwyler gives bright, glorious light to the darkest, most depressing reality a parent could imagine. There is one moment in particular late in the film, when Mamie is giving testimony at the kidnapping and murder trial for her son’s killers (two white men who are, largely, never seen on camera), that serves as a master-class in acting. As Chukwu keeps her camera trained on Deadwyler in one long, unbroken cut, we see the actress cycle through mourning, fury, hope and back to despair in unblinking fashion.