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Movie Reviews

Till ★★★★



Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Cast: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Sean Patrick Thomas, Haley Bennett & Whoopi Goldberg

Release: 13th January 2023

There’s nothing more powerful than a mother’s love for their child. That is the energy permeating throughout Chinonye Chukwu’s Till – the devastating story about Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy who was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. His death and court case into his murder made headline news, raising awareness of the violent persecution of Black people under Jim Crow Laws enacted in the South.

When the calls for diversity and representation grow louder, so does the type of stories we want to consume. Black trauma has been an active conversation amongst the Black community. These are healthy conversations rooted in concerns as to whether creators will do these stories justice without re-triggering an entire generation who has felt the pain on a continued basis. This review won’t blame anyone from the community for feeling Till is not for them. After all, Blackness is not a monolith, and we’re doing what we can to protect our mental well-being. However, when other aspects of Black culture remain untapped in most Hollywood circles and genres with stereotypes that desperately need to be challenged and unwritten, Black trauma is not something to be solely defined by. Media examples such as Antebellum or Amazon Prime’s Them have shown what happens when such concerns are not taken into consideration and the exploitation of Black trauma is marketed with sub-par substance. Till doesn’t make that same mistake: It’s an emotionally devastating piece of work, and under Chinonye Chukwu’s direction, she makes the poignant justification of its necessity.

When history is written by the victors, full of biassed myths and damaging connotations directed at Black history, it comes at the realisation at how Emmett Till’s story has yet to be properly told, and certainly not from an angle where the research is comprehensive and respectful.

Having explored the prison execution system in Clemency, Chukwu is no stranger to hard-hitting subjects, making her the right person to understand the weight and gravity of Emmett Till’s story. Certain creative decisions benefit Chukwu’s sublime direction: the decision not to show Emmett’s death is wise. Giving more prominent access and visibility to the Black mobilisation, which helped galvanise the Civil Rights movement, is another. But the primary feature is the female gaze, telling Emmett Till’s story through the eyes of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (The Harder They Fall’s Danielle Deadwyler).

Like Clemency, the attention on Black women is what makes Till work. It is a specified perspective that Hollywood does not pay attention to or an aspect of history not taught in schools. Yet when the viewpoint is actively encouraged, it’s a powerful experience like no other.

Deadwyler’s command of the screen is masterful, channelling every vulnerable nuance of Black heartbreak and resilience. Most of that communication comes through her eyes, speaking volumes about her state of mind without uttering a word. You feel it as she tries to console her emotions, shunning questions from activists in raising attention to Emmett’s death. You feel it when all-white jurors declare open season for disinformation and lies, slandering her name as a jezebel (her first husband Louis Till died overseas in a racially motivated lynching while serving in the U.S Army) or calling into question whether she could identify her son’s body. But one expertly crafted scene upends any argument. In the paused reveal of Emmett’s brutalised body, where the camera is placed at eye-level with the autopsy table before it slowly bears witness to the devastation, the audience is right there with Mamie, sharing the same grievances as her character.

Till deals in aftermaths, that recognisable, personal space where loneliness and absence combine when there are not enough words to articulate it. That feeling where there is no allowance to pause and reflect despite the outside world trying to shift (sometimes insensitively) over the next moves. There’s an essence that cinematographer Bobby Bukowski captures perfectly, an omnipresent feel to scenes which might as well be a commentary on how people view Black lives as something that exists ‘over there’ when the camera is deliberately bringing its audience into its circle.

That lingering is due to Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chukwu’s script going to great lengths to humanise Emmett’s (Jalyn Hal) life. Collectively, they take ownership of the narrative to see his innocence, carefree optimism, and love for his mother. The conventional approach to its story occasionally flags up editing choices that hamper pacing, and Abel Korzeniowski’s rousing score in places could have benefitted from something more reflective. But Chukwu’s direction always confronts what was lost, juxtaposing the vile vilification from the white criminals who see Black lives as anything else but human – and that’s what matters.

In creating this visceral picture, Deadwyler anchors moments of defiance and activism with scenes where the loss of her son is immeasurable. Those fluctuating qualities make it one of the best acting performances this year.

If its heart wasn’t in the right place, Till’s story could have been a ‘pat on the back’, self-congratulatory experience where the actions of one woman changed the world – and that’s it. But it is not. It’s a compelling examination on the refusal to look the other way and the bravery to demand accountability for monstrous racial acts that still live on today. “We have to,” Mamie says to another Black woman as they attend Emmett’s open-casket funeral. Otherwise, the severity of Till’s story – like countless others – is just lost to history.

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