MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Till - In Theaters
Directed by Chinonye Chukwu
Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall
14-year-old Emmett Till (Hall) never saw it coming. With a hug from his mother Mamie (Deadwyler), he left Chicago for Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives. His mother had “the talk” with Emmett about the need to be careful and to “be small”. Optimistic and naïve, he was unprepared for the hard daily work of picking cotton with his sharecropper cousins or with how risky it could be to walk into a small grocery store on August 24, 1955 and chat with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white cashier. Emmett comments that her face resembles the photo of a Hollywood star that came with his wallet. A backward glance and an appreciative whistle on his way out would seal his fate and cost him his life four days later.
Till wisely and beautifully focuses on the close relationship of mother and son. It begins in Chicago with scenes of Mamie watching her beloved “Bobo” smile and dance to a 78-rpm record of Dizzy Gillespie. There are just enough family scenes to demonstrate the warmth at home as well as Mamie’s trepidation of sending her child to the South, even though he is sure to receive love there, as well.
Emmett’s abduction at night by Roy Bryant (Sean Michael Weber) and J. W. Milam (Eric Whitten) at gunpoint is followed with a time of disappearance before his body is found washed along the shoreline of Tallahatchie River.
Mamie travels south to join her family in a long pursuit for justice in which the odds are clearly not in her favor. Lynchings were still common in the south and juries were inclined to believe the word of white witnesses, even when there was insubstantial proof.
The film deals compassionately with a number of complicated ethical issues besides racism, including the risk of certain death to the relatives who allowed the abduction to take place. Mamie’s insistence of an open coffin funeral for Emmett (and a photo of Emmett’s bloated body shown on the front cover of Jet magazine) still has the power to shock.
There are no actual scenes of the violence done to Emmett Till (which takes place offscreen), but the racist language and everyday life under Jim Crow is depicted without sensationalism.
The film includes scenes of the murder trial and its unsatisfactory verdict, but keeps its focus on the family. Mamie’s love for Emmett and her desire that his death count for something emboldened the NAACP and the first wave of the Civil Rights movement. Rather than serving as a historical drama filled with factual tidbits, Till is a prolonged elegy, filled with the wisdom borne out of grief.
I do not anticipate a large initial audience for this exceptional, thoughtful film but (with the powerful lead performance of Danielle Deadwyler at its center) Till is bound to move the hearts and minds of anyone willing to allow its quiet power to embolden the continual seeking of justice that still – 67 years later – remains evasive.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A low-key but moving depiction of a mother’s defiant courage to speak the truth in love.
Three pitchforks: Racist swearing, scenes of a battered corpse, violent actions, off-camera lynching.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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