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TILL: TRANSCENDING THE OBVIOUS

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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