Echoes of Emmett Till’s murder in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955 grew increasingly harder to ignore when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman was acquitted back in 2013. Since then, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, has channeled her grief and disappointment into fighting social injustice. It’s a role Emmett’s mother Mamie Till Mobley also played until her death at age 81 in 2003. “Till,” premiering at the New York Film Festival, tells the story of how she got there.
While the ABC limited series “Women of the Movement” — starring Tony winner Adrienne Warren as Mamie Till Mobley (or Bradley, per her legal name in 1955) — recently covered some of this ground, “Till” places unparalleled focus on Emmett’s mother. In the process, we learn so much about him, prompting us to feel his loss even more intensely.
Jalyn Hall (“All American”) strikes the right chord as Emmett; through his mother’s eyes, we see the boy, the human, not just the tragic victim. We learn that he is witty and charming with a gentle soul. As a kid from Chicago, he is completely oblivious to the life-threatening peril that robs him of his life in Mississippi.
Danielle Deadwyler utterly encompasses the role of Mamie, making it clear that there was never a moment in Emmett’s short life or in the aftermath of his murder when she was not his mother. Her roles in “The Harder They Fall,” “Station Eleven,” “Watchmen” and “The Haves and the Have Nots” provided only glimpses of her immense talents and capabilities. Her portrayal of Mamie Till Mobley is a triumph, not just on an artistic level but also a human one.
Deadwyler doesn’t just evoke Mamie’s speech patterns (which are very specific to Black women in the city trying to shed vestiges of the rural South) or capture her mannerisms, which remain precise at all times; she embodies every single inch of Mamie, body and soul, bringing her to life and making her real in both our minds and our hearts. What she does with her face and body language is never short of mesmerizing. There is a moment on the witness stand where she flutters her eyes while recalling how she recognized her child’s body, letting only the white of the right eye show for a brief instance, a feat that is both remarkable and achingly poignant. This magnificent performance elevates Deadwyler to the ranks of the great actors of our time.
Director Chinonye Chukwu is no stranger to handling difficult subject matter. Her 2019 film, “Clemency,” focused on a warden who carries out executions and the unique bond she forms with a young inmate facing death. Chukwu infuses “Till” with a hopefulness that is surprising, given the subject matter, with a number of aesthetic choices, including the bright colors and light on display. These elements don’t make “Till” any less hard to watch, however, especially during his kidnapping and Mamie’s heartbreaking identification of his mutilated body, where she surveys every single inch of him. Not as much time is spent on the actual process of getting the body out of Mississippi, or on how pictures of Emmett end up on the cover of Jet magazine, but the behind-the-scenes role that leading civil rights organizations and activists like Mississippi’s T.R.M. Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith) play in it all is thoroughly acknowledged.
Instead, the focus is on the impact of the photographs and of the open-casket funeral in Chicago, with an emphasis on Mamie’s clarity in standing up for her child and how her stance rallies others to do so as well. In the film, when Emmett’s great aunt Elizabeth (Keisha Tillis), who witnessed his kidnapping, says she can’t look at his body at the funeral, Mamie tells her she must, in a tone and manner that suggests she is speaking to us all, urging us to not look away, not just from Emmett but from injustice and hatred everywhere.
There are several surprises in “Till,” including Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal as Mamie’s mother Alma, Jayme Lawson as Myrlie Evers, as well as the comforting presence of Frankie Faison as Mamie’s father and Sean Patrick Thomas as her loving and supportive fiancé Gene Mobley. Hair (by Louisa V. Anthony and her team) and wardrobe (costume designer Marci Rodgers’ credits include “Passing” and “No Sudden Move”) are especially stellar and convey the differences between country people and country-people-turned-urban-people quite well. The clothes truly tell stories on their own, even for the main white characters, namely Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) who put the target on Emmett’s back, and her husband Roy Bryant (Sean Michael Weber) and brother-in-law JW Milam (Eric Whitten), who carried out Emmett’s murder.
Getting “Till” on the big screen has been a lengthy process for producer and co-writer Keith Beauchamp, whose influential 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” (which he’d researched since 1997) is credited with resurrecting wide public interest in the case. During that process, Beauchamp became extremely close to Mobley Till and even got the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the Till case. He also became committed to bringing this history to the big screen, enlisting Goldberg early on to produce.
Nearly 70 years after Emmett’s tragic death, “Till” underscores the pain as well as bravery in bringing Emmett’s murderers to both national attention and trial (even as a mockery of a trial in Mississippi), particularly through Deadwyler’s dynamic and transformative performance. Most importantly, it shows how a mother’s love compelled Mamie Till Mobley to stare down hate and to demand justice and accountability for her son’s murder which sadly eludes far too many, even in 2022.
“Till” opens in select US theaters Oct. 14 and nationwide Oct. 28 via Orion Pictures.