Human dignity is the territory staked out in Till, a film detailing the tragic death and harsh aftermath of 14 year old Emmett Till. Dignity for African Americans was a simple thing to want, but a hard thing to get in the deep south of the 1950s. Absent the need to bestow dignity upon all of its citizens, Till’s death would become an unavenged Mississippi murder, sanctioned by an all-white jury disinterested in justice.
There were no witnesses to the interaction between Emmett Till and Carol Bryant, a young white woman working behind the counter of a general store in rural Mississippi. Therefore, by necessity, the writers of Till took an educated guess as to the brief dialogue that precipitated the end of young Emmett’s life. “You look like a movie star,” he says to the pretty woman. In order to drive the point home, he opens his wallet to show a photograph of a favorite white female matinee idol. The shopkeeper’s deeply indignant expression at this adolescent indiscretion hints at what will happen next.
History has taught us well how white racist vigilantes used lynching as a remedy to teach so-called impudent black boys and men a lesson. But knowing Emmett’s fate does not diminish the tension of Till. The filmmakers have wisely decided not to show the brutal murder that ensues, but we are left to sit, perhaps complicit in the crime, with our metaphorical hands tied, imagining Emmett’s descent into hell.
Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, played with grace and restraint by Danielle Deadwyler, offers a lesson on how to turn primal grief away from hate and into steely resolve. Her pursuit of justice for Emmett’s murder turns her carefully curated life – a life in which she dedicated herself to the unrealized dream of shielded her son from fear – into larger purpose. “He was a perfect baby,” she tells those who will listen. As if to say, he was as human, and sentient, as the white men who killed him.
Whoopi Goldberg, who gently renders the character of Mamie’s mother, Alma Carthan, wants to bend her headstrong daughter toward a careful consideration of next steps. Alma is no stranger to the dangers of small town southern living. But Mamie will have none of it. She insists on an open casket memorial service. She wants the world to stand witness to the blunt force damage done to her son. Damage so severe she can only identify him by sense memory. How the bends and folds of his body feel. How they remind her of the shape of him as a toddler, so connected to her as she cleaned the house with one hand and held him with the other.
There is some self blame. Mamie had been gripped by a strong feeling that her son’s trip to Mississippi was ill-advised. Before he leaves she gifts him with the ring his father wore at the moment he lost his life fighting for the allies in Europe during WWII. Ironically, the presence of that ring on Emmett’s finger would become the only way to identify his body. It’s impossible not to draw a straight line from Mamie’s stern warnings prior to her son’s trip to Mississippi to visit cousins, to the fear-induced conversations African American parents have today preceding a child’s solo trip to the corner grocery store for a carton of milk, or taking the family car out for a drive.
Determined to show strong for her son, Mamie places herself in harm’s way, traveling to Mississippi to testify at the trial. A fools errand, as no one involved, including those prosecuting Emmett’s killers, think the proceedings are anything more than judicial mockery. But there’s more for Mamie to learn in Mississippi than the decision of an all-white jury. She will be repeatedly hammered by the harsh realities of dignity-theft suffered by blacks in the south, including bone-chilling revelations about the behavior of family members under the duress of events leading up to Emmett’s demise.
Writer/director, Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency, A Long Walk), confidently leads us through the complexity of human emotion before the murder, and the compound legal entanglements that follow. Her unyielding exposition of both give strength to the message of just how messy the residue of hate can be. From detailed period costuming and art design, to a pitch-perfect musical score, every element of the film folds over into the strength of its storytelling.
It should be recognized that Till is more than the anatomy of a murder. It’s a tale of redemption. Bolstered by a well-honed sense of right and wrong, and never losing her unbendable sense of dignity, Mamie Till-Mobley becomes an important voice for civil rights in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a speech to supporters in New York shortly after her son’s death – in a quote that remains emblematic today – she tells the audience, “If this country has failed to protect the black body from hate, America has yet to meet her promise.”
It would take 67 years for Congress to pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching law, making lynching a federal crime. Today, a Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the state of Tennessee is trying to revive lynching as a form of execution.
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Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash
3 thoughts on “Film Review: Till”
I have not seen this film, but your review offers a compelling impression that it does justice to the horrors and unspeakable tragedy of the events described. This was a particularly horrific black mark on the very dark and painful history of southern injustice. It might have been hidden had not Till’s mother been courageous enough to act as she did in the name of her son. Well written, as always.
Thanks Ann. The movie really leaves an imprint. And it’s so expertly done. I hope it means good things for this director.