The murder of Emmett Till is one of the most tragic and important moments in American history. Even when I was a kid, it was learning about his lynching that crystallized the idea of racism in my mind. I had been taught about things like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and how great people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were, just like (hopefully) every other child in this country.
But it wasn’t until I heard Till’s story that it finally clicked. This was a boy, just a few years older than me, who was brutally killed just because he was black, and the people who did this thought of it as a way to “teach him a lesson” and “put him in his place.” When I first saw the side-by-side photos of Till as a happy young man and the unrecognizable corpse in his coffin, I cried. How could this have happened? What could he possibly have done to deserve this? More than anything else I learned in school about that era of history, it was Till that suck out to me, and while I’m far from perfect, he’s part of the reason why I try my best to act with empathy when I deal with people, even when I disagree with them, and why – despite the occasional joke – I absolutely abhor violence.
The need to confront the world with the truth lies at the heart of Till, the second major feature from Chinonye Chukwu, who directed the wonderfully poignant Clemency back in 2019. While the film has the earmarks of a prestige pic, the best parts are the moments where Chukwu eschews the Awards Season box ticks in favor of simply telling the story, all of which are led by a masterful performance from Danielle Deadwyler, who had her breakthrough last year with The Harder They Fall.
Deadwyler plays Mamie, the mother of Emmett (a fine turn from Jalyn Hall). She’s a caring, hardworking parent who somehow finds a balance in her life between raising a son, maintaining a career, and even finding some romance in the form of her fiancé Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas). Despite all this, Mamie has a strong sense of foreboding in the early parts of the film, not because Deadwyler herself knows what’s about to happen in the story, but because the character is keenly aware of the stark difference in black people’s rights and treatments between Chicago and rural Mississippi. She doesn’t constantly fret about Emmett’s upcoming trip to visit his cousins, but she’s diligent and savvy, giving her son solid advice on how to behave while still doting on him as her only child. Even when her own mother, played by Whoopi Goldberg, tells her not to worry so much, Mamie’s quick to remind her that there’s a good reason why the family left the Deep South to begin with. She’s not being overprotective, but simply practical.
Down in the town of Money, Emmett commits his capital crime, flirting and whistling at a white woman. In one of the better touches of the film, Chukwu portrays this moment in a way that feels like it’s casting Till in the worst possible light. There are conflicting accounts of the incident, and it’s not certain that the infamous “wolf whistle” ever even happened, but Chukwu is willing to give the most scandalous version of events the benefit of the doubt. Emmett approaches Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), grabs candy with his bare hands, tells her she looks like a movie star, and even shows her a picture of a white woman that came with his wallet, before going outside and blowing that fateful whistle. All of this is to show that, even if we believe every negative thing said about Till in this moment (save for the blasphemous lies Bryant later told on the stand during her husband’s trial, a testimony she recanted about 15 years ago), it wasn’t that bad, and it certainly didn’t warrant this boy’s death, or even Bryant racing to her car to grab her gun and fire it at him.
It’s an absolutely brilliant sequence. This is why a 14-year-old had to die. It almost certainly didn’t happen the way it’s depicted, but Chukwu is willing to grant an undeserved bit of deference to the people that monstrously said that he got what he deserved. They’re the same people who today see unarmed black men murdered by police and respond with, “Well, he shouldn’t have resisted” or some other such bullshit. Chukwu is telling the audience, in no uncertain terms, that even if this is exactly how it went down, how fucking dare you try to justify what happened to Emmett because of it. That’s speaking truth to power in a very bold way.
But really, it’s the aftermath of Till’s murder where the real meat of the film happens. Deadwyler initially plays Mamie as a smart, loving, and pragmatic mother, by no means an easy job, but it’s a pretty commonplace character type. And it should be said, when she first sees Emmett’s makeshift coffin and bloated body (the makeup and prosthetics used here are expertly heartbreaking), the emotional breakdown she performs is some melodrama straight out of a “Movie of the Week.” But once that’s over, she’s forced by circumstances to get down to business while still trying to grieve for her son. She’s approached by media, civil rights figures, and prominent lawyers, all of whom want to use her story to promote their agenda. It’s a refreshingly nuanced and balanced take by Chukwu to show the likes of Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), who would himself become a martyr to the civil rights cause, as being sympathetic to Mamie’s plight while also coming off as somewhat opportunistic.
This is where Deadwyler rises to the pantheon of performances this year. Mamie has it coming from all sides, having to figure out on the fly when she’s able to mourn, when to be assertive, whether the people surrounding her have her and Emmett’s best interests in mind, and how she’s going to go about seeking justice when deep down she knows it’s impossible. The second and third acts of the film show an unwanted but profound metamorphosis as Mamie transitions from everyday mom to national symbol and advocate, and Deadwyler makes us feel her anguish every step of the way.
Emmett Till’s loss has been the subject of a ton of art and culture over the last 60+ years, including My Nephew Emmett, which was Oscar-nominated for Live Action Short a few years ago. Most of those works have focused on the actual lynching, which is crucial to understanding just how far we’ve come as a nation and just how far we have to go before we achieve a truly equal society.
Here, however, the attack is largely dispensed with off screen, because we all know what happened. The same goes for the trial of the men who killed him to a certain extent. Chukwu keeps her frame squarely on the consequences, be they the national reaction, the absolute joke of southern justice, or the visceral image of Till’s open casket that changed the course of history. But more than anything else, this is a film about how a survivor carries on, and the strength she shows as the worst of humanity is brought to her doorstep, forcing her into a spotlight she definitely never asked for, but one she nevertheless used to great effect for the betterment of all.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What lessons from your education affected you the most? How do you deal with racism in your everyday life? Let me know!