“Till” is a very harrowing experience to say the least. As attempting to present one of the most atrocious cases of American racism during the late 20th century, this modest but undeniably powerful film does not look away from the horror and sadness of the case at all, and it also shows considerable restraint and thoughtfulness while strongly supported by one of the best movie performances of this year.
At the beginning, the movie establishes how things were fairly okay for Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) and her 14-year-old son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) in Chicago, 1955. Although they sometimes experience racism for being African Americans as shown from one early scene in the film, that is relatively mild compared to those Southern states, and that is why Till cannot help but worry a lot when her son is about to visit his cousins in a small rural town of Mississippi. She often reminds him that he really needs to be careful down there, and her son assures that he will keep that in his mind, but she is still quite concerned day by day after his son leaves for Mississippi.
And then, alas, her worst fear comes true. As enjoying some free time along with his cousins, Emmett happens to drop by a local shop run by a Caucasian woman named Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), and his innocuous words and gesture toward this despicable racist lady ultimately leads to his horrible death a few days later. Once he is kidnapped by two angry Caucasian guys, he is brutally tortured and beaten before his death, and the movie thankfully restrains itself without resorting to any sensationalism.
When she hears that her son is kidnapped, Till is certainly shocked a lot, and she becomes all the more devastated when her son’s dead body is eventually discovered in the Tallahatchie River. At least, she is supported by not only her family members and friends but also those activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP), and that is how she can have her son’s mutilated body sent to Chicago as soon as possible.
As lots of public attention is drawn upon her son’s death, Till clearly discerns the opportunity to show the world more of the atrocity inflicted upon her son, and, while still coping with her immense grief and sadness, she makes a very bold choice for that. Rather than not showing her son’s mutilated body at all, she chooses to show that all to not only those reporters but also many people who come to the open funeral ceremony for Emmett, and that naturally draws a considerable amount of criticism.
During this part, the movie also does not look away just like its heroine, and that will certainly make you uneasy and uncomfortable for good reasons. As far as I can remember, the movie directly shows Emmetts’s mutilated body twice, and this is surely quite difficult to watch while on the verge of being rather exploitative, but the movie still sticks to its restrained attitude while making a very clear point to us. It is horrible indeed, but we should not look away nonetheless, and Till, who died in 2003, might have approved of this.
The second part of the movie revolves around the following trial on Emmett’s case, and the screenplay by director Chinonye Chukwu and her co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp wisely avoids any dramatic overkill as steadily maintaining its low-key tone as before. While never overlooking that Southern racist atmosphere, the movie also focuses a bit on how many local activists including Medgar Evans (Tosin Cole) and Dr. T.R.M. Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith) kept trying during that difficult and dangerous time, and there is a brief but touching scene where Evans’ wife Myrlie (Jayme Lawson) confides to Till on how often she worries about not only herself and her husband but also their children (As some of you know, her husband was assassinated right in front of his family and children several years later).
Right from the first day of the trial, it is quite evident to Till and her supporters that they will not get any justice for her dead son in the end, but she keeps going with dignity – up to a certain point where she decides that enough is enough. When she is later on the witness stand, she is virtually insulted and ridiculed by the lawyer representing those deplorable killers of her son, but she remains firm and dignified despite that, and the movie respects that as the camera never looks away from how she bravely holds herself.
There are many other moments where the movie depends a lot on its lead actress’ talent and presence, and Danielle Deadwyler, who deservedly received the Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Lead Performance a few days ago, is utterly magnificent as quietly but powerfully illustrating her character’s emotional journey along the story. She is also surrounded by a number of good performers including Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg, Jayme Lawson, Tosin Cole, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Roger Guenveur Smith, and the special mention goes to young actor Jalyn Hall, who holds his own small place well besides Deadwyler during the early part of the film.
On the whole, “Till” skillfully handles its important social/historical subject with enough respect and thoughtfulness, and it is surely another excellent work from Chukwu, who previously drew my attention for her overlooked gem “Clemency” (2019). Considering how the American society is still riddled with racism problems, the movie feels all the more relevant, and it will certainly make you reflect more on why there should be more changes even at this point.
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