I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Till and being reminded of the horrific fate that befell a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi back in 1964. I hadn’t reckoned with the worldview of director and co-writer Chinonye Chukyu, who chose not to depict Emmett Till’s unspeakably violent death and decided instead to tell the story through the eyes of his mother Mamie.
That doesn’t mean that we are spared the horror of Emmett’s brutal treatment. Till depicts his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral so the world could see for itself what hatred brought about in the Jim Crow South.
I wasn’t overly impressed with Chukyu’s earlier feature Clemency, but this film is a quantum leap forward. The director shares writing credit with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp. She takes a stylized approach to the material, especially in the courtroom scenes, and asked her composer, Abel Korzeniowski, to forego any hint of sentimentality. As a consequence, his music is forceful , effectively projecting feelings of anger more than sorrow.
Then there is the radiant, heartbreaking performance of Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie. It is one of those breakthrough performances that makes one feel foolish for not having noticed her before. Admittedly, roles as rich and nuanced as this one don’t come along every day. Mamie Till-Mobley turned her towering grief into a beacon for Civil Rights activists at a time when it mattered greatly. Deadwyler enables us to understand how that transition occurred.
Till offers an unconventional treatment of what could easily be schoolbook-text fodder. It speaks to our hearts and minds in eloquent fashion. I can’t pretend that it’s a cheerful moviegoing experience but it is memorable, for all the right reasons.