Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writer: Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp, Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson
By Tom Moore
After her 2019 sophomore feature “Clemency,” writer/director Chinonye Chukwu returns with “Till,” taking on the true story of Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) and providing viewers with a caring, connective, and compelling depiction of Mamie’s journey to becoming something more.
The film follows Mamie Till, a mother whose son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) is lynched during a trip to see his cousins in Mississippi leading her to rise and fight for justice against his murderers. Now, it’s worth noting that the film is told mostly through Mamie’s perspective meaning that some characters and historical story threads aren’t given as much focus. Emmett as a character doesn’t really make an impression outside of how Mamie perceives him and Hall’s easily likeable charisma. Other civil rights activists shown, like Medger Evers (Tosin Cole), are a little thin and struggle to feel as important as they’re made out to be.
Also, some of the historical elements tied to black experience differing in the north and south don’t reach their full potential and could’ve easily been expanded upon to provide some rich historical depth. Truthfully, the film also could’ve gone deeper into looking at Mamie’s activism post-Emmett to really flesh out her story since it’s rarely told. So sure, there could’ve been more added to “Till” to expand on its era of civil rights and racism in America. However, the film’s central focus on Mamie doesn’t hold it back in the slightest and expands on the story of Emmett Till in an interesting way.
One of “Till’s” writers, Keith Beauchamp, was not only mentored by Mamie until her death in 2003, but also directed a documentary in 2005, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” that offered a deep investigation into Emmett’s murder and the historical context of the time. Thus, “Till” acts as a complimentary companion film to Beauchamp’s documentary yet still offers its own personal insight into Mamie’s perspective and story largely thanks to Chukwu’s direction.
“Till” is an excellent showing of Chukwu’s vision as a director because of her clear care in approaching this story. When it comes to some of the early moments focused on Mamie letting Emmett go to Mississippi, Chukwu creates some good intensity with some dashes of horror through Abel Korzeniowski’s score that act as Mamie’s instinctive fears. The way she captures Emmett’s kidnapping and murder does a great job leaving this gut-wrenching impact through sound design without making it a spectacle of violence against black bodies.
Where Chukwu’s direction really shines though is in her depiction of Mamie making the historic decision to hold an open casket funeral so the world can see what happened to Emmett. There’s no way to go through this sequence without a heavy heart and tears in your eyes as Chukwu capturing Mamie’s perspective in this tragic moment cuts super deep and holds nothing back in evoking the horror of this tragedy. As this sequence unfolds, Chukwu makes choices that heavily reflect Mamie’s real-life views and intentions ultimately making the scene an immersive reflection of reality. It all leads to this major turning point for Mamie and an excellent shift in tone that drives her story further and really sees Deadwyler breakout.
The entire cast of “Till” is honestly great, but Deadwyler is just acting on another level with how she creates a great balance within Mamie that’s instantly engaging. Right from when you first meet her, you can feel the love and concern she has for Emmett and her desires to protect him from the ugliness of the world. Thus, when Emmett’s death is confirmed, Deadwyler evokes all the pain and legitimate anguish that any mother would feel as their worst nightmare comes to life. Then, alongside Chukwu’s great turn with Emmett’s funeral, Deadwyler transforms in the same way that Mamie did in that moment to become something more. With nearly every scene that follows, you can feel Deadwyler channeling that anger and frustration into strength and a determination for justice.
It all culminates in a sequence that truly defines “Till” and the strengths of Chukwu and Deadwyler as Mamie takes the stand during the eventual murder trial. The way that both Chukwu and Deadwyler seamlessly shift tones and have your attention in the palm of their hands is masterful. Chukwu maintains the momentum of Mamie’s testimony by never breaking away from her and makes it a captivating moment through her steady approach. Deadwyler is just flawless in this moment delivering basically a monologue about being a mother and facing stern opposition with great emotion and a strong fearlessness. It balances the vulnerability that Mamie still feels and her resilience excellently and embodies not only her arc, but also the reason why she became such an impactful figure in civil rights. It’s a sequence that’s one of the strongest cinematic moments of the year and, alone, should position both Deadwyler and Chukwu as big names in awards conversations.
With “Till,” Chukwu helms another character-driven story chock full of rich emotion and showcases her prowess as a director with the care and compassion she shows for Mamie Till’s story. Deadwyler should be a shoo-in as an awards frontrunner for her breakout performance that can’t be missed and she drives all the emotion and triumph that present throughout “Till.”
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