Be warned. There is a lot of crying in Till. And rightly so, as this is a powerful, shocking and emotional tale based on the true story of a mother desperately trying to bring to justice the men who lynched her 14-year-old son. This is not an easy film to sit through, as it tells its painful story with flair while the central performance will pull your heart apart and leave it in tatters on the floor. This film will shake you, even up to the final screen grab.
1955. Emmett Till is a 14-year-old boy sent to Mississippi to spend time with his cousins, even though his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, worries about how he would behave in a land with little respect for those of colour. While there, he comments to a white shop owner and whistles at her. Days later, he is dragged from his cousins’ home and later found dead in a river. Shocked, angered and determined to bring justice, his mother, riddled with grief, takes on the Mississippi courts but knows she is fighting a losing battle.
Chinonye Chukwu, whose previous film, Clemency, was an underrated gem, directs and co-writes this story based on the actual events of a filmmaker who has been working in the business for years and has nurtured her talents to their fullest. This is a visually exciting take on a story that could have been played with safely. She is not afraid to give us fascinating angles, play with focus, and the use of close-ups means the story is far more intense and pulls us into the action. There are moments while watching this little masterpiece that you think it’s Scorsese or Spielberg behind the camera.
Although the story itself is strong enough to carry us through the awful narrative of events. Set at a time when racism was rife in the deep South, in which the people of colour were working the cotton fields and spending their nights in areas, especially for blacks, Chukwu shows the difference between Emmett’s Chicago, where there is some form of acceptance, to a place where half-way through the train journey to Mississippi, the people of colour have to move from the front of the train to the back. Once at his cousins, Emmett seems far too “modern”, refusing to work the cotton fields and having a more relaxed approach to white people.
The film is relentlessly mournful, as we see the pain and grief that Mamie goes through once Emmett has been discovered. Wanting the world to know what happened, she bravely decided to show her dead son, even though he is bloated, with facial wounds and a sight that even shocked me, considering its cinema classification. This leads to Mamie’s determination to try and bring his killers to justice, although fighting a losing battle with the level of racism that she faces within the state, egging her on to become an active member of the human rights campaign, wanting a rule to be put in place against this level of violence against anyone, let alone a 14-year-old boy.
Chukwu’s film is one of the most potent examples of the injustice and levels of racism that people of colour face every day in their fight for equality in America. This is a no-holds-barred examination that runs parallel to what is happening worldwide today. Have things changed? As the final screengrab states, a law only recently passed, which becomes the most shocking thing about this fantastic movie.
The sense of period is captured brilliantly, with terrific use of music, songs from the time with a blues edge. The costumes and production design are all commended, as does the tight script that zips along at a solid pace, never leaving enough room to be bored. Unfortunately, the story is far too powerful for that.
It’s also a chance for actress Danielle Deadwyler to shine. This is a star-making performance that will drain you emotionally. She is magnificent, capturing every moment of grief and pain. One scene in which she answers questions during the court case is handled with a single close-up of her answer, which is something to behold. Not since Bob Hoskins’ final scene in The Long Good Friday have I seen an actor handle a close-up and tell everything they are feeling just by watching them. That’s not to say the rest of the cast is resting on their laurels. Young Jalyn Hall is brimming with confidence as Emmett, yet without being too confident not to care about him. Look out for Whoopi Goldberg, almost unrecognisable, as Mamie’s mother (Goldberg is also one of the producers and Barbra Broccolli, the woman in charge of the Bond series).
Till is an emotionally-draining tale that will horrify you. At the same time, you wonder what an awful breed we are as humans. It’s also shocking that even after all these years, we still are a hateful race. It sometimes takes a genuine mini-masterpiece like this to put things into focus. Rush to see this but be prepared for a very emotional ride.
5 out of 5
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Starring: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Whoopi Goldberg, Franke Faison, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Haley Bennett
Written by: Chinonye Chukwu, Michael Riley and Keith Beauchamp
Running Time: 130 mins
Release date: 6th January 2023