Director: Chinonye Chukwu

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

Genre: Biopic, Drama

Duration: 2 hr 10 min

*Some minor spoilers ahead*


‘Till’ is based on the true story of Mamie Till, an African-American woman in a segregation-era USA, who sought justice for her 14-year-old son Emmett after he was murdered by a racist White mob.

Danielle Deadwyler is a revelation

Danielle Deadwyler is a revelation in the role of the grieving mother. The 40-year-old actress had a lot riding on her shoulders when she took on the real-life figure of Mamie Till. Mamie had undergone indescribable pain, first by losing her husband to the Word War, and then her only son to a horrific crime. Deadwyler takes all this into consideration when portraying her, and performs brilliantly in her scenes with a sense of extraordinary strength. It is a travesty that the American actress did not receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for ‘Till’ this January.

Jalyn Hall must also be given flowers for portraying Mamie’s son, Emmett Till. Sixteen-year-old Hall is marvellous at providing heart, soul and joy to young Emmett, a boy who was only known through a hate crime that befell him. Hall’s smile and innocence are contagious in scenes with his onscreen mother, and he displays a dramatic flair that’s befitting of the real subject, which makes us ponder whether Emmett would’ve been a big star if he were still with us.

And lastly, there’s Haley Benett. The ‘Girl on the Train’ actress portrays Carolyn Bryant, a white Southern woman who Emmett whistled at, which caused the offended Carolyn to bring her racist male relatives and catch Emmett. And to commit unspeakable crimes against him… Simply because he whistled at her.

While Benett’s racist antagonist is largely unexplored (it’s understandable since ‘Till’ looks more at Black resilience and a racist system rather than individual bigots), Benett still leaves an impression with her subtly frightening execution.

Heartbreaking drama

The story of the Tills was that the mother and son lived in New York. Although still largely racist, the northern state was more progressive than the South. Emmett, a young boy, belonged to a generation that stood for an optimistic future for the American-American community. He was a bright child who felt like his life was just beginning. Upon the urging of Emmett’s grandmother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), Mamie begrudgingly sends her son to Mississippi to live with his distant relatives. It was part of education, so the young man could learn about harsh realities of the country. 

Jalyn Hall is so full of innocence and confidence as Emmett that it makes his scenes tainted by sadness. We all know how things panned out for him, so every scene is filled with dread as we anticipate the violence. When the event occurs, our hearts sink.

Deadwyler has extreme emotions to display as the grieving mother. She is angry, shocked, distraught and depressed. Sometimes, she cries in agony and other times, she is quiet and lost. These grand emotions push the movie into more melodramatic territory. But melodrama is expected because just look at the magnitude of wrongdoing that’s happened. Viewers will be overwhelmed by emotions and even exhausted just like Mamie, and that is on purpose.

The depiction of violence

Way before the tragedy, we are already terrified. The haunting score, the hushed looks from the white people in rural Mississippi and Mamie’s disturbed motherly intuition that something just feels wrong all make ‘Till’ a truly disturbing and dark film.

Notably, we never see the White mob beat up young Emmett. “I’m not interested in relishing in that kind of physical trauma,” director Chukwu commented on the omission. Instead, the horror is sculpted from the build-up and the aftermath. A stand-out scene is when Emmett, on a whim, whistles at Carolyn outside a shop. I remember when he did it, everyone in the theatre I was watching this in collectively gasped. In another scene, Mamie is about to enter the courtroom when a White male officer performs a manual check on her. This caused the lady seated next to me to exclaim in shock.

A more debatable issue about the film is the depiction of Emmett’s corpse after it is found in a river. “What does this reliving of Emmett Till’s brutal murder and Mamie’s subsequent activism accomplish?”, asked Adrian Horton in a Guardian review. “For whom are we conjuring the unimaginable pain of ghosts of the past?” Many critics were irked by the explicit display of the teen’s unrecognisable body. 

The real Mamie Till displayed her son’s corpse in a case in a church for every visitor to see so that people will get an idea of the monstrosity inflicted on her son. But did we the audience need to see it? Does it add something new to the drama? I think not. 

The film is overall disturbing and even sickening. It refuses to look away from the ugly face of racial hatred. Chinonye Chukwu tackled similarly hard-to-swallow themes in 2019’s Sundance winner ‘Clemency’. 

Some might see that film and ‘Till’ as torture porn which anti-Black racists might take pleasure in getting off to. But that depends from viewer to viewer.

The rest of us have to watch ‘Till’ in silence and with respect, as an acknowledgement of things that passed.

Cinematography and costumes

The cinematography is splendid as it captures the brutal beauty of the Deep South. According to a Guardian critic, it has the “evocative stylistic choices and the prestige look of a better budget”. The costumes, however, are too clean and pristine. They don’t look lived in but fresh off the rack.

Mamie’s story arch

Mamie Till is such an inspirational figure as a woman and mother who had to surmount unenviable circumstances to come out as a stronger and inspiring leader for her community, something that she was unwillingly thrust to. I would have liked to see more of her life after the court case and the campaigns and speeches she delivered as part of the Civil Rights Movement. But the drama wraps up without giving us an interesting in-depth look at her life as an icon.

Overall, ‘Till’ is a tense, well-acted, poignant and tough film to watch. It is not advised to be shown to minors as it has disturbing images and anxiety-inducing topics which are better suited for an adult audience.

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