Don’t look away.
That’s what director Chinonye Chukwu seems to be daring audiences with her new movie, “Till,” which releases in select Phoenix theaters on Oct. 21.
Yes, “Till” as in the surname of the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who in 1955 was murdered in a hate crime in Mississippi. It was a name he shared with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, née Carthan, played by Danielle Deadwyler.
“Till” is actually about Mamie, a key figure in the Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) story that has been less explored over the decades. The 130-minute film depicts Mamie’s journey as the cocoon she carefully created for herself and her family in Chicago is torn to shreds when her son is lynched while visiting her family in the South one summer.
At first, that seems to be the end of it. But Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam arrive in the middle of the night to abduct Emmett in retaliation for his interaction with Bryant’s wife. Despite Moses and Elizabeth Wright’s (John Douglas Thompson and Keisha Tillis) efforts to appease the intruders, the white men cart off the Wrights’ great-nephew to punish him.
Emmett’s case is initially investigated as a kidnapping. One of Mamie’s relatives, Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll), helps connect the family with the NAACP to draw national attention to Emmett’s disappearance. Mamie conducts numerous interviews, and neighbors pitch in to help out.
It takes several days for word of Emmett’s corpse being discovered in the Tallahatchie River to reach the family.
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Danielle Deadwyler is unforgettable as Mamie Till-Mobley
The scene in which Mamie learns that her beloved son is dead is one of several unforgettable moments that Deadwyler delivers.
The life drains from her eyes before she collapses under the weight of the realization that the reason for her existence is gone. There’s no audible reaction, but her face says it all.
As Mamie, Deadwyler is powerful in her restraint. The turmoil behind her stoic façade is palpable. And that’s what makes it all the more impactful the two instances she lets her agony explode out of her body.
It takes some negotiating to get the state of Mississippi to send her son’s body home to Chicago. And Emmett’s return changes everything.
We see Mamie examine her son’s body, every nook and cranny of the decomposed remains. The injustice she sees propels her to make sure everyone sees — on magazine covers and at an open-casket funeral — what white supremacy did to her Bobo.
“He’s in just the right shape” to be seen by the public, Mamie says with a too-calm decisiveness at the mortuary.
Deadwyler portrays the fortitude of a mother who would stop at nothing, endure anything, to see justice for her son — of a woman sharing her pain and trauma with the world to put an end to complacency in the face of racism.
Later, when Milam and Bryant are charged with Emmett’s murder, Mamie withstands humiliation and racist jeers to undergo questioning in the courtroom. Her assertion that the recovered body is indeed her son’s — despite the defense casting doubt on this — might help the odds of getting the men indicted, she’s told.
In a one-take scene that lasts several minutes, Deadwyler testifies that only a mother can recognize a body in such shape. You won’t want to take your eyes off this unflinching tight shot of a woman who has found her power.
Some of the heavy-handed stylistic choices at times undermine Deadwyler’s magnificent work by bogging the scene down with too-loud instrumentals and unnecessary pauses for dramatic effect.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine anyone but her and Hall, who plays Emmett, in these devastating roles.
Chinonye Chukwu holds no punches — except in depicting violence
“Till” won’t be to everyone’s taste.
It’s a part of American history that shouldn’t be forgotten, and this film serves as a still-necessary reminder of the inequalities in this nation. Just this August, a grand jury in Mississippi said there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham on kidnapping and manslaughter charges.
Chukwu declines to portray the violence that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and their conspirators inflicted on Emmett. But she holds no punches when depicting the result of the lynching.
Just as Mamie decided at the time, Chukwu also sees the necessity of showing audiences how Emmett’s body was maimed beyond recognition.
Yes, it’s graphic. But that’s the point. The discrimination and racism that fueled Emmett Till’s murder and sparked the civil rights movement are still omnipresent.
Mamie Till-Mobley is just one of countless Black mothers in America who have lost children to hate crimes. “Till” painfully reminds us that we’re still waiting for justice in the majority of these cases.