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Emmett Till is known for his death. A new film about his mother also honors his life

Jalyn Hall plays Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler is his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in <em>Till. </em>
Lynsey Weatherspoon
Orion Pictures
Jalyn Hall plays Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler is his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, in Till.

Ever since it was announced, the movie Till has spurred a lot of questions about how it would portray its disturbing real-life events. There have been countless poems, songs, plays and documentaries about Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching — by two white men who were ultimately acquitted — provoked a national outcry that helped ignite the American civil rights movement. But the idea of a Hollywood movie on the subject has given some Black critics and audiences pause, especially those who feel that too many films and TV shows focus on Black pain and trauma, even with the best of intentions.

Chinonye Chukwu, the director and co-writer of Till, is clearly aware of these potential criticisms. She's said in interviews that she wanted to avoid exploiting Till's torture and murder and instead shift the perspective to his widowed mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her brave pursuit of justice.

Mamie is played by Danielle Deadwyler, whose superb performance holds you even through the movie's toughest moments. And Till is often piercing to watch, even during the early scenes of Mamie and Emmett together at home in Chicago, which are filled with a sense of foreboding. Emmett, an outgoing, high-spirited 14-year-old played by Jalyn Hall, is about to visit relatives in Mississippi. And Mamie, who grew up down there, warns her son — whom she calls "Bo" — to be on his guard.

The movie follows Emmett as he arrives in Money, a small sharecropper town in the Mississippi Delta, and spends a few happy days with his great-uncle, great-aunt and cousins. But then comes the moment when he enters a grocery store and tries to start a conversation with the white proprietor, Carolyn Bryant, played by Haley Bennett.

There's been much dispute over the years about what happened during that fateful interaction. Witnesses have said that Emmett whistled at Bryant. Bryant testified in court that Emmett was verbally and physically aggressive, a claim that she would later admit was a lie.

In the film, Emmett tells Bryant that she looks like a movie star and whistles at her, to his cousins' horror. They flee and try to lie low, but a few nights later, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother show up where Emmett is staying and abduct him at gunpoint. Chukwu doesn't show any of the violence that happens next; all we see is a brief shot of the barn where Emmett is taken, accompanied by the sound of distant screaming.

I have a lot of respect for Chukwu's thoughtfulness here, which is consistent with the intelligence and restraint she displayed in her searing death-row drama, Clemency. But the camera doesn't look away when Mamie goes to identify Emmett's body, which had been found dumped in a river and transported back to Chicago. The movie can't not show us the horror that Mamie sees. It was her decision, after all, to hold an open-casket funeral and invite reporters to photograph Emmett's body, to show the world what racist violence looked like.

Till captures how Mamie arrived at that difficult decision, torn between her instinct to retreat into her pain and her growing realization, aided by members of the NAACP, that Emmett's death might bring about social change. As shattering as Deadwyler is in her expressions of Mamie's anguish, the most powerful moments are those in which you see her thinking, weighing her responses and sometimes even suppressing her grief and rage. At one point, Chukwu simply holds the camera steady on Mamie's face as she testifies at trial about the son she loved and lost. It's painful to watch her silently enduring the defense's shameless attempts to discredit her, even as she knows that the all-white jury will let the killers go free.

Till does hit a few standard inspirational beats, like when Mamie meets the future civil rights leader and martyr Medgar Evers, nicely played by Tosin Cole, and when she delivers a stirring public speech that marks her arrival as a civil rights activist. It also has a lot of unexpected warmth and humor, much of it supplied by Whoopi Goldberg in a terrific turn as Mamie's loving mother, Alma. And Chukwu, for all her dramatic restraint, fills Mamie's scenes with her family and friends with striking visual beauty, from the clothes that Mamie wears to the golden sunlight pouring in through her window. At one point Mamie imagines seeing her son alive and well again, a choice that could have been overly sentimental but here feels like a gesture of compassion. The movie's saying, this is how we should remember Emmett Till — not just as he died, but as he lived.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.