Getting the story’s delicate balance mostly right, “Till” reflects how Mamie Till Mobley turned her inconsolable grief over the murder of her son Emmett into activism. Anchored by Danielle Deadwyler’s incredible performance, it’s a harrowing portrait of reluctant parenthood in the most dire of circumstances.
“Till” comes less than a year after ABC covered these events in “Women of the Movement,” which devoted six episodes to the story and spent considerably more time on the courtroom drama. The film, almost out of necessity, races through that chapter, an understandable choice given that the outcome of the trial was largely a foregone conclusion.
“Clemency” is directed by Chinonye Chukwu (working from a script by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp), when Mamie thinks her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hill), is going to visit his relatives. Mississippi borders on anticipation in 1955. That’s partly because the boy, introduced as merrily singing and dancing with his mother, isn’t taking her warnings seriously enough when she tells him, “Be careful. Be small down there.’
While visiting the local store with his cousins, Emmett inadvertently notes that the white female employee (Haley Bennett) looks just like the movie star photo that came with his new wallet. When the whistle blows, the relatives are immediately afraid of further trouble and leave the scene quickly.
In what seems like a wise choice, Chukwu presents the harrowing moment when the white men drag Emmett out of the house while he is sleeping, but he does not dwell on the murder itself; rather, the visual focus is on the gruesome consequences of what was done to her, an image Mamie chose to share publicly by holding an open casket and inviting the press to photograph her body, “letting the whole world see what happened to me.” son”.
Given the ongoing poignancy of the story, less is indeed more, and “Till” hits its stride as a devastated Mamie comes to grips with how to deal with her son’s murder in the court of public opinion. What begins as a fruitless search for justice turns into a larger mission to expose systemic injustice and prevent others from sharing his fate.
While the cast includes Mamie’s supportive boyfriend (and later husband) Sean Patrick Thomas and Frankie Faison and Whoopi Goldberg (the latter doubling as producers) as her parents, it’s Deadwyler’s show, to the exclusion of almost anyone else. Still, if that somewhat narrows the focus of “Till,” there are enough heart-wrenching moments when she worries about Emmett’s condition and then learns about it to make for an emotional thrill that carries through to the end.
More than 65 years after his death, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law earlier this year — a sign, Chukwu said in a director’s statement, of the “cultural and political realities of today” that resonate with the film.
“Till” clearly felt the weight of that legacy, and there’s a hard-to-avoid aspect of the production that can’t quite escape the movie-of-the-week feel. At its core, though, Mamie’s depiction of strength and resilience captures her as more than a symbol, a reluctant hero in the flesh, whose face of indecisive tragedy resonated with us beyond her time.
“Till” opens in select US theaters on October 14th and October 28th. It is rated PG-13.