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‘Till’ lands a gut punch with the tale of Emmett Till’s murder

Danielle Deadwyler’s performance is Oscar-worthy as the mother of the teenager whose 1955 lynching helped spark the civil rights movement

Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall in “Till.” (Orion Pictures)
4 min
(4 stars)

The image, in his casket, of the murdered Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old lynched in 1955 Mississippi after reportedly wolf-whistling at a White woman, Carolyn Bryant, is said to have added urgency to the civil rights movement. Disfigured in death, Till’s swollen, virtually unrecognizable face was made famous in a photograph by David Jackson, first published in Jet magazine, showing the boy’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, looking down on her son. The implication of the violence visited upon him by two White men — Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother J.W. Milam, who both confessed to the killing in a 1956 magazine profile but were never convicted of any crime — was more hideous than anything captured on film.

Retropolis: Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement

That is the story told, with unflinching honesty and to devastating effect, by the movie “Till,” which begins with Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, in an Oscar-worthy performance of maternal grief turned resolve) setting Emmett (Jalyn Hall) on a train from Chicago to visit his cousins in Mississippi. Emmett’s brief encounter with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) is depicted as an innocent misjudgment by an overly friendly, perhaps cocky, boy from the big city, in unfamiliar territory, but Emmett’s subsequent, retaliatory murder is never shown. We only hear his cries of agony, off-screen, from a distance.

Similarly, director Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”), working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, initially seems to shy away from showing us Emmett’s ruined face on-screen, photographing it obliquely, and with appropriate reserve and respect, after the boy’s coffin is sent to a Chicago funeral home, where Mamie insists that it not be closed at the funeral or his face cosmetically altered. Later, at the viewing, we see Emmett again, but at a slight remove. Mostly, Chukwu keeps the camera on the faces of the mourners filing past: scared, horrified, confused, angry, in shock.

But it’s Mamie’s response to Emmett’s death, as reflected in Deadwyler’s expressive face — at first heartsick, then aghast, then steeled by an unshakable determination to make a difference — that matters. It drives the film, carrying us through the prosecution of Roy Bryant and Milam (Sean Michael Weber and Eric Whitten) to the film’s emotionally gutting conclusion.

“Till” is many things: a portrait of Emmett Till, vibrant with the promise of life; the riveting retelling of a true-crime tale; a doomed courtroom drama about justice undelivered; and a glimpse at the backroom strategizing of the early civil rights movement’s players, who include Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, who offered Mamie counsel and helped find witnesses to Emmett’s lynching who were willing to testify in court.

But those threads are brief, woven together as texture and context in a larger story that is about one person, and one person alone: Mamie. It’s Deadwyler who holds our attention — our gaze and our hearts — and who does so with a masterful control. Even at Mamie’s most shattered, an inextinguishable ember of courage and purpose seems to smolder at the core of the character.

“Till” is no mere period piece, either. Although closing on-screen titles tell us the fates of several characters (most notably Evers, who would be assassinated in 1963 in front of his wife and children), the film ends with other dark echoes. Some of them reverberate today, with reports of attempts to suppress Black votes and the disproportionate — and disproportionately violent — policing of Black bodies. Propelled by Deadwyler’s unforgettable portrayal, “Till” leaves us with a sense of an indictment still unanswered in 2022. It’s one that is implicit in the second meaning of the film’s provisional-sounding title: the word “till,” as in until.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs. 130 minutes.