Till star rating: ★★★★☆
Nearly seventy years on, the murder of Emmett Till stands as one of the most shocking and shameful moments in American history. In 1955, 14-year-old Till was abducted while visiting family in Mississippi and lynched for a perceived offence to a white woman. His horrifyingly disfigured remains were found, and the resulting images became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement, as well as a wakeup call to America.
Director Chinonye Chukwu, who also masterminded Clemency, could easily have zoomed in on the murder, exploiting its barbarism for dramatic effect. However, her story focuses on the people. Danielle Deadwyler plays Till’s mother, Mamie, who has reservations about her beloved son leaving Chicago, only to have her worst fears realised. What follows is a elegant story of dignity in the face of evil, as Mamie risks her own safety and the scrutiny of a racist society as she travels south to fight for justice for her son.
We don’t see the murder, but Chukwu’s camera rests outside the barn and lets you hear it. Just as Mamie insists it is important for people to see what was done to Emmett, so to the audience is shown the horrors without it ever feeling exploitative. Just as difficult is the racism displayed during the trial, not only from grizzled Southern stereotypes but also judges and even children. In the face of it all, Deadwyler is spectacular.
She portrays Mamie as a woman twisted in grief, initially angry that her son’s death might be “used” as political capital, but eventually finding the strength to stand in the face of unimaginable hate and demand justice. Till isn’t easy to watch, it’s not meant to be. But it is required viewing.
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