The tragic true story of the murder of Emmett Till and the pursuit of justice undertaken by his mother Mamie Till-Bradley is explored in Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Emmett Till was a 14 year-old African American boy who traveled from his hometown of Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped and murdered after being accused of offending a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. His body was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River, and brought back to his mother in Chicago. His bloated, mutilated body was displayed in a public funeral service with an open casket at the insistence of his mother. This decision to have an open-casket was used to reflect the harsh realities of racism in the United States. It reflected the barbarism of lynching, and how the murder of someone without any actual legal process involved was primarily used against African-Americans. The everlasting effect of Till’s murder has culminated in the 2022 passing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which criminalizes lynching as a federal offense, 67 years after his murder.
The film does a great job at illustrating the love the Till family has for Emmett, particularly that of Mamie. Emmett is painted to be a charismatic, vibrant, and excitable child. His relationship with his mother is one that only knows love and nurture, and not the hatred that exists within the Jim Crow-era American south. Mamie is anxious about Emmett departing for the south, urging him to act in subordination to the white people who live there. Emmett carries his wondrousness with him to the south, acting in innocent playfulness with all who he encounters, even with Carolyn Bryant, who he states resembles a movie star. Although it was meant well, Bryant has a violent reaction, and eventually calls upon her loved ones to seek out Emmett.
The performance of Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Mamie Till-Bradley, is an instant standout. She has great chemistry with her costars, and truly emotes the traumatic effects Emmett’s death had on Mamie as well as the protective, maternal instinct to seek justice for her child. Where the film mainly follows Mamie’s journey through the aftermath of Emmett’s death, Deadwyler’s performance required that she help the audience explore the peaks and valleys of grief. Thankfully, Deadwyler didn’t disappoint. Her performance climaxes in the courtroom, when Mamie gives her testimony in the prosecution against Emmett’s murderers. It is in this scene that Deadwyler’s acting prowess truly comes to her aid; when the camera is on her face the entire time she speaks, she unleashes all of the pain and exhaustion Mamie has felt throughout the ordeal, and leaves the audience in silence. Her strong performance throughout the entire film should’ve warranted her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, though she was snubbed this year.
Overall, the film is beautiful and tragic at the same time. I would’ve liked for it to have explored Emmett and Mamie’s relationship more in-depth, as the film begins shortly before Emmett’s murder. I would’ve loved to have gotten more on-screen evidence of what their relationship was like, as opposed to only inferring it from dialogue and context. The audience would’ve gotten an even better understanding of who Emmett was to others. However, this film is strong enough as it is, and should be watched by all those interested in becoming more in touch with Black American history.