Growing up in Texas toward the tail end of the 20th century, I was not taught about Emmett Till. I’ve learned about him since, of course. Till’s name adorns this year’s overdue federal antilynching act, and his tragic fate has inspired plays and films, including 2018’s Oscar-nominated short, “My Nephew Emmett,” and now a powerful feature from Chinonye Chukwu, who gave Alfre Woodard one of her greatest roles in 2019 Sundance winner “Clemency.”
Till’s story — that of a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who, in August 1955, was kidnapped in the middle of the night and lynched while visiting his family in Mississippi — may have been omitted from my Southern schooling for racist reasons, though I suspect it had as much to do with Western culture’s “great man” bias. History, as a field of study, celebrates the achievements of heroic individuals. Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks. Those names were all taught. But Emmett Till was a kid whose murder galvanized the American civil rights movement, and it has taken a different kind of thinking — à la the “Say Their Names” campaign or Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” — to position victims in the public’s mind.
With “Till,” Chukwu does something bold, both intellectually and emotionally, with the boy’s death: First, she banishes the brutality from the screen. “Till” does not attempt to dramatize what white men Roy Bryant and John William Milam did to Emmett, and it only nominally imagines the interaction between the boy and shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) that gave them “cause,” by their own bigoted logic, for such lawless vigilantism. More importantly, by focusing on Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), Chukwu reframes this tragedy as a tale of heroism. To the extent that historians recognize people of action, Mamie rose to the occasion and assumed the role of great woman.
To get there, she was first forced to endure the unthinkable, sending her son south to Mississippi with the belief that in two weeks’ time, the boy would return alive. Instead, what came back was his corpse. In his few scenes, child actor Jalyn Hall embodies the same full-of-life, full-of-promise spirit embodied by family portraits. Deadwyler, meanwhile, makes Mamie’s love real and her grief relatable. No mother should experience what she did, and no one would blame her for wanting to bury him as discreetly as possible. But Mamie made another decision. She arranged for Emmett’s startlingly disfigured body to be photographed, and she insisted that Emmett receive a public funeral, where the casket was left open for maximum visibility.
In a sense, history happened to Emmett. But Mamie took charge of this tragedy. She traveled to Money, Miss., and testified in the trial against Bryant and Milam, knowing full well how rare it was to convict white men of such crimes in the South. She also knew how powerful a mother’s words would be to the case. When Mamie takes the stand in the film, Chukwu trains the camera on Deadwyler, witnessing every time a skeptical or insensitive question makes her flinch — like the lashes against Lupita Nyong’o’s back in “12 Years a Slave.” It’s a formally rigorous choice in an otherwise dynamic period piece, defined in part by its bold fabric and wallpaper choices (the influence of “If Beale Street Could Talk” perhaps).
Under cross-examination, the defense lawyers attempt to cast doubt on whether the corpse was in fact her son, then insinuate that two life insurance policies she had in his name gave her incentive to declare him dead. The treatment amounts to a fresh kind of trauma, but what Deadwyler shows us is Mamie gathering her strength and staring down a machine engineered to discredit her. When the justice system fails her, Mamie turns to the court of public opinion, sharing her story with more sympathetic supporters. The movie builds to one such rally, though Chukwu and co-writers Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly have invented another, earlier scene to represent her impact: As Mamie is leaving Money, every person she passes on the street turns to salute or acknowledge her.
It would take a tough constitution not to be moved by “Till,” although that doesn’t necessarily make it great drama. Chukwu may have good reason to avoid speculating about what really happened between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant — and to be clear, nothing could have justified her response or the subsequent actions of her husband. And it’s a sound question of good taste not to stage the lynching, but to let the reactions of Mamie (who receives the news of Emmett’s death in one of those “Vertigo”-style dolly zooms) and Emmett’s grandmother (Whoopi Goldberg, so good in just a few scenes) convey the pain.
Chukwu’s first wish is clearly not to re-victimize Emmett Till, but in eliding such details and avoiding the torture, Chukwu relies perhaps too much on our imagination. By contrast, more in-your-face filmmakers Mel Gibson and Quentin Tarantino have achieved much of their popularity through a willingness to traumatize their audience, who then thirst for revenge. Chukwu isn’t making a Blaxploitation movie here, but a responsible, respectable mainstream drama — something more akin to Robin Bissell’s “The Best of Enemies,” about the friendship between a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader, in style and feeling.
Considering the blind spots in my own education, I suspect that “Till” will be the first time some people have heard this story. Others have lived with it every day since 1955. The gap between those two groups is one of the things that is meant by the word “privilege” today. Ironically, Till’s killers presumably thought they were teaching the boy a “lesson” — one that ultimately backfired on the perpetrators and awakened the country. And yet, the violence of it was part of an injustice so entrenched in America’s past that the crime predictably went unpunished. As Black author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a letter to his son, “Between the World and Me”: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” Let this movie be a reminder.