Till is a hauntingly told historical drama about the 1955 abduction, torture and lynching of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till in the Jim Crow South, as told through the impassioned, sorrowful eyes of his mother, Mamie Till Bradley (later Till-Mobley), played by Danielle Deadwyler (The Harder They Fall, 2021).
Deadwyler completely embodies Till Bradley’s staggering grief and anger at the senseless, violent death of her only child.
Seemingly at the expense of her own mourning, she insists that her son’s disfigured, beaten body be displayed in a transparent glass-topped casket, so the whole world can see the sum of racial hatred.
Her decision, and the graphic images of young Emmett’s disfigured face as published in The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine were a rallying point for the burgeoning civil rights movement. (Aided by the Pullman porters, who risked their health and safety to distribute those publications across the nation.)
Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field officer in Mississippi, played by Tosin Cole (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015), encourages Till Bradley to engage with the civil rights movement.
This support and encouragement help her begin healing, and eventually her pain is eclipsed by her need to act.
Till tells the story of a brilliant, resilient mother, who does the only thing she can for Emmett and also for herself, embarking on a campaign to expose the rotten underbelly of racial injustice.
Mamie Till Bradley was a poised, determined woman who helped jump-start the civil rights movement, which marches forward today as Black Lives Matter.
Mamie Elizabeth Carthan was born in Mississippi. As a child, she moved with her parents to Chicago during the Great Migration, where she worked hard to make a life for herself and her son.
Emmett’s father, Louis Till, died in 1945. He was an American soldier and never returned from the war. The circumstances of his death were not revealed in the film. After his death, Mamie married and divorced “Pink” Bradley, not shown in the movie.
As the film begins, Mamie is a beautiful, successful, happy woman, and she and Emmett are getting along just fine. She knows the dangers to a Black boy in the South. Still, she reluctantly lets Emmett travel alone to Mississippi to visit his uncle and cousins, with the promise that they would not let him out of their sight, a decision that she revisits often.
Emmett Till is played by Jalyn Hall (Shaft, 2019), and his performance is life-giving.
We see Emmett’s emerging enthusiasm for life, balanced with his youthful naivete. Emmett’s likable, ever-present spirit carries this film’s every frame, and drives home the theme of racial injustice ever deeper.
Having been raised in Chicago, in a loving home, Emmett did not understand the dangers of life in the South that his cousins took for granted. Pushing the limits, as 14-year-olds sometimes do, he playfully whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who worked behind the counter at a five-and-dime store. For this he was hunted, beaten, hung and his body disposed of in the Tallahatchie River. We hear parts of these events, but the director spares us the sights.
Whoopi Goldberg plays Alma Carthan, Mamie’s mother. This supporting role is relatively minor, but to her benefit, though her screen time is limited, her handling of the role is larger than life. You may not recognize her till the credits. She was also one of the producers of the film.
Till is a staggering directorial achievement by Nigerian-born director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu. Chukwu does not shy away from American realism, even at its darkest.
In her previous award-winning film, Clemency (2019), Chukwu directed Alfre Woodard playing a conflicted prison warden in charge of carrying out death row executions. With Till, she has taken one of the most damning events in American history and distilled it into a beautiful art film that leaves audiences with a deeper appreciation for Black America’s past and present experience.
It calls to mind how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. Consider Georgia voters in 2022, bravely exercising their rights to vote despite the hateful gaze of legally armed ballot-box “watchers.” This is the tip of the iceberg, coupled with countless barely submerged expressions of the violent maintenance of white supremacy across the country.
Till is a hard movie to watch, but we still need to see Emmett’s open casket. Through her art, Chukwu instructs us on the price civil rights activists pay for our freedoms.
Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Arlington Road, 1999) is unhurried, lingering with the beauty and the pain of our protagonist. Deadwyler’s depiction of Mamie Till Bradley is flawless. Her eyes tell the story and everything else fades away.
Like many great films about enduring injustice, the climax transpires in the courtroom. When Mamie takes the stand, everyone in the theater stops breathing, as if to embrace the possibility of justice.
Till, playing only in theaters, is rated PG-13, and runs 2 hours and 10 minutes.