Producers: Keith Beauchamp, Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas Levine, Michael Reilly and Frederick Zollo Director: Chinonye Chukwu Screenplay: Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chinonye Chukwu Cast: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Kevin Carroll, Frankie Faison, Whoopi Goldberg, Haley Bennett, Jayme Lawson, Tosin Cole, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Darian Rolle, Sean Michael Weber, Eric Whitten, Marc Collins and Tyrik Johnson Distributor: United Artists
There was a time when cable television networks like TNT made excellent historical bio-dramas, and “Till” resembles them. It’s so meticulous in its period details (production design by Curt Beech and costumes by Marci Rodgers) that the images rendered by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski often seem designed to showcase as many of them as possible. And the script, a long-time passion project for writer-producer Keith Beauchamp, who made the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” in 2004 and has been active in getting the case of the Chicago boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955 reopened, is uncompromisingly blunt, sometimes to the point of obviousness.
But the story that brought the ugly reality of racism to the shocked attention of the American public and helped galvanize the civil rights movement is so powerful that criticism of Chinonye Chukwu’s moving telling of it pales into insignificance. “Till,” which centers on Mamie Till’s outraged reaction to the death of her beloved son, may be highly conventional in form, but while more conscientious than inspired it carries immense power, both on its own terms and in the shattering performance of Danielle Deadwyler.
Deadwyler is Mamie Till, a war widow living in Chicago and working in an office. She has a boyfriend, a barber named Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas), but her overriding love is for her fourteen-year old son Emmett, nicknamed Bo (Jalyn Hall), an exuberant, extroverted kid with a free-spirited air. At the moment she’s concerned about him because her mother Alma (Whoopi Goldberg) has persuaded her to let him travel to Mississippi with his grand-uncle Preacher (John Douglas Thompson) and cousin Simeon (Tyrik Johnson) to visit the family still living in Money. Mamie impresses on him to act deferentially to all the whites there, but she worries that something may go amiss.
It does, of course. An incident occurred in a small store owned by whites but frequented by blacks in which the clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), accused Emmett of misconduct toward her. The following night her husband (Sean Michael Weber) and a friend named Milam (Eric Whitten) abducted the boy from Preacher’s house, tortured and killed him, and dumped his body in the river. At first Mamie’s father (Frankie Faison), through Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll), enlisted the N.A.A.C.P. to find Emmett, but after his bloated and disfigured body was discovered, the organization supported Mamie’s demand that the corpse be returned to her for burial rather than unceremoniously disposed of in Mississippi. It was that, and her decision to have the body placed in an open coffin, photographed for the news media and opened to public view, that led to a demand for justice.
The resultant trial of Bryant and Milam took a determined Mamie to Mississippi to testify about the identity of the body, which had been questioned. There she was protected by Medgar Evers (Tosin Colin), later assassinated himself, and his wife Myrlie (Jayme Lawson) as well as other local activists. The sham proceedings ended in a verdict of not guilty, of course, despite the powerful testimony of Preacher and Willie Reed (Darian Rolle), a local farmhand who heard Emmett’s cries of pain at a distance—both of whom put their own lives on the line by telling their stories in court. But soon after their acquittal the accused men admitted to the murder in a paid interview. After the verdict Mamie returned north to become a passionate activist on behalf of civil rights.
Director Chinonye Chukwu (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, and who previously helmed the excellent “Clemency” with Alfre Woodard) works with editor Ron Patane to lay all this out with clarity and understated intensity. There are points at which the narrative has to be somewhat speculative—particularly in terms of the specific of the encounter between Emmett and Carolyn at the store. (Bryant later disavowed the lurid account she gave outside the jury’s hearing at the trial, but never entirely retracted the contention that Emmett did something untoward, which other nearby witnesses could not rebut on the basis of personal knowledge.) Most of the narrative cannot be questioned, however, let alone discounted, and the story stands as testimony to the horrors that were long perpetrated in the name of white supremacy in this country—and are still very real. “Till” has resonance not just as a history lesson, but as a continuing warning—especially when as well told as it is here.
The entire cast does splendid work. Hall makes Emmett a fresh-faced, outgoing kid who struggles to meet the demands of an unfamiliar environment (including aiding Preacher in picking cotton) and for unfathomable reasons becomes a symbol of the cruelty of the Jim Crow-era South. Among the others Goldberg, who as one of the producers also helped shepherd the film to completion, radiates profound grief in just a few scenes, while Thompson brings gravity and a lifetime of sadness and suffering to Preacher, who tries to explain to Mamie in a remarkable scene why he felt unable to use his shotgun to protect her son. But mentioning them shouldn’t detract from the contributions of the rest of the actors, including Bennett, who almost makes you understand, if deplore, the predicament puffy-haired Bryant created for herself.
But it’s Deadwyler who lifts “Till” far beyond the level of typical docu-drama. She gives a performance so expressive and rich in detail that it transcends the genre; she embodies a mother’s piercing pain at the death of a child while bringing dignity and grace to the Mississippi scenes in which she too becomes as outsider enduring the hostility of segregationist white society—even the prosecutors who are ostensibly fighting her cause. Though the actress’ name might not yet be familiar, it will become so as award nominations appear in the coming months.
The brutal treatment of Emmett Till and the defiant courage of Mamie continue having an impact to the present. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was finally passed by Congress only this year (with three Republicans—one from Georgia, one from Kentucky, and one from Texas—voting against it). A memoir, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle: The story of Catherine Bryant Donham,” was made public in 2022. And an old, newly discovered arrest warrant against her was revived but no billed by a grand jury in Mississippi. Nearly seventy years later, the promise of American justice remains unfulfilled, and this film can make the wider public aware of that deplorable fact and, one hopes, angry about it.