We have Denzel Washington’s single teardrop. We have Viola Davis’ runny nose. And now, we have Danielle Deadwyler’s lip quiver, expertly executed in Chinonye Chukwu’s deeply moving drama “Till.” Another best actress contender emerges although I wish the film could rise to the level of Deadwyler’s performance.
The sturdy drama follows Mamie Till (Deadwyler), the mother of Emmett Till, whose abduction and lynching in 1955 sparked global outrage and served as an important catalyst in the civil rights movement. “Till” charts Mamie’s grief, as well as her pursuit of justice. But getting people to see a movie about such a horrific event will be a tough sell, even if the film avoids depicting much of the brutality of Emmett Till’s killing.
In the weeks leading up to its debut at the New York Film Festival where it had its world premiere on Saturday, I’ve told dozens of people – colleagues, friends, Oscar voters – to see “Till.” But when I tell them what it’s about, most of them admit they don’t want to see a movie about such a grim subject –even after I assure them that the murder takes place largely off-screen.
And that’s the state we find ourselves in this time where an immensely talented filmmaker like Chukwu, best known for 2019’s “Clemency,” is given the opportunity to bring this important story to life. She’s not doing it with the prospect of box office rewards. She’s doing it because we owe it to Mamie, a woman who fought tirelessly for justice, faced her son’s killers and had to hear her child defamed in death by the same people who stole his life. Her journey, from grieving mother to reluctant civil rights warrior, is expertly charted in the script that Chukwu co-wrote with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp.
You can point to difficult-themed films such as the best picture winner “12 Years a Slave” (2013) that faced similar hurdles regarding getting industry voters to watch its gruesome imagery and were able to overcome them. Though “Till” is much softer, it will face the same obstacles as Steve McQueen’s period drama, but will hopefully clear them just as successfully.
Chukwu’s direction is another standout in a year of compelling work from Black women directors. We’ve already seen Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” with Kasi Lemmons’ “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” still to come.
“Till” will also remind audiences that long before she started co-hosting “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg was a formidable actress. Goldberg, a previous Oscar winner for “Ghost” (1990) and nominee for “The Color Purple” (1986), produced the film and has two standout scenes in “Till” as Emmett’s grandmother. Each of them shows the kind of precision and deliberate technique only masters like Goldberg could achieve. Goldberg may not have enough screen time to get a nomination, but she’s a worthy addition to the supporting actress race.
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The film’s supporting male cast take a backseat to Deadwyler, although they are still impressive. Jalyn Hall captures the adolescent spirit and young curiosity of Emmett while veteran actor Frankie Faison showcases his quintessential stature and presence that’s gone underappreciated for decades. Sean Patrick Thomas is back, after what has seemed like decades after “Save the Last Dance,” with his role as Mamie’s boyfriend and stepfather to Emmett. He deserves more parts like this one. Also, the man hasn’t aged a day.
The technical categories could get some attention. Bobby Bukowski’s polished cinematography, as well as the film’s costumes and production design, which expertly bring 1950s Chicago and the segregated South to life, could get nominated.
So is “Till” an Oscar contender? A lot will come down to whether it gets seen. To that end, the marketing and awards team will have to beg industry voters to watch the film all season long, and there’s a good chance some of them might not give it a fair shake. That would be tragic because this story and this film deserve your attention.