Let’s talk about Till.
Welcome to 2023! Racism still exists. And that is obviously a very terrible thing but it shouldn’t take a film critic who has many readers as you have fingers to tell you that. The film industry has always tried to show depictions of racism as a way to teach the public what it can feel like to be at the end of such abuse. It’s also because Hollywood has a lot of guilt over films like Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer are some of the most groundbreaking films ever done considering their content is very unkind to black people. And what’s most important is that after criticisms of the Academy and Black Lives Matters protests, a lot of these films are coming from black voices which make the films better because they can speak from experience. Till is a film that comes from one of those black voices, but is it any good?
Back in 1955, Mamie sends her son Emmitt Till to Mississipi so he can spend some time with his family there. However after he is seen to have been too friendly with a white woman, a group of men lynch him. His mother then decides to do everything she can to try and bring his killers to justice.
This is a story that still resonates to this day. It is one of absolute horror and it gets even more shocking the further we get away from when it happened. For those who are unaware of what happened, and as it’s not a commonly told part of the Americn Civil Rights movement over here in the UK, this teenage boy supposedly wolf whistled at a girl in a grocery store. This led to her family brutally killing him in a lynching. Mamie Till then led a campaign to try and bring justice over the death of her son, becoming a symbol of the civil rights movement in the process as it exposed the extent of racism in the deep south of the USA. Surprisingly while certain parts of the story have been told in films and TV shows, the whole thing has never been made into a movie. So it’s good that finally almost 70 years later, we finally get this told so a whole new generation can learn about this.
And the overall story is incredibly well done. Firstly, I want to say how tasteful the movie is. It would have been very easy for the director Chinonye Chukwu to go for the easy route in this move. Emmett Till’s murder was known for being particularly violent and there is how Mamie decided to have an open casket funeral so that the world could see what happened to her son. It would have been easy to show the brutal lynching and the visuals of Emmett’s face to get the audience to be very angry very quickly but this film is confident in what it’s doing to not have to resort to that. It would have been quite exploitative to show the imagery but instead the lynching is done out of show, while low angles and just the odd glimpse from awkward view points is all we see of the battered body. It’s a film that has been done with the most respect possible.
I also think the film does really well to find unique themes in a story that could have ended up a lot like so many other films. Look I know I have to be careful with what I say because I’m a white man talking about racism against black people, but there are a lot of movies about how racist America was in the 1950s. There are also a lot of movies about black people trying to get justice in this time period because well, they didn’t tend to get it. But while the film does tell that story, and tells it very well, it brings in several other themes. Mamie is presented as a mum who just wants justice for her slain child. But the NAACP see the opportunity for her to become more than that and be an activist for civil rights and help black people across the country. This interesting idea of someone who is fighting for something personal and not really considering they could fight for something more is fascinating, especially in a modern age where lots of people have unwittingly become the faces of campaigns. It’s a great way to add even more depth to this film.
The big star of the show here though is Danielle Deadwyler, the person tasked with playing Mamie. I can’t say I’ve ever seen her before and looking through her IMDB, she hasn’t just passed me by in something I have actually seen. But I cannot wait to see more of her because if this film is anything to go by, she’s going to be in a lot of things. She has to be so many things in this movie, strong, fragile, and then that combination where she’s trying to be strong while really inside everything is breaking. This is a brilliant performance that really, I’m not sure what else to say about it. She is absolutely brilliant, there is no fault in anything she does, and without her the film would be nowhere near as good as it is.
So this is where I end up trying to talk about the parts of the film that don’t work. But because there isn’t really any worth saying, I have to talk about an elephant in the room. Whoopi Goldberg is in this film as Mamie’s mother. For those unaware, she said on American TV show The View, it’s basically their version of Loose Women, that the Holocaust is not about race. This was fairly quickly condemned as being very anti-semitic and she was suspended from the show. Recently, she appeared to double down on those comments. This would would put a question mark over many movies but when it’s about one about the fight against racism, it does feel wrong. She couldn’t be cut out of this film unfortunately, though I don’t think the question of if this was considered has been asked of the film’s production team. Anyway, it’s something to consider.
Other than the inclusion of Whoopi Goldberg, Till is a brilliant movie that tells the heartbreaking story of Emmett Till in the only way it could be told. Thanks to a director that has considered the wider story around Till’s lynching and not just the event itself, this is a powerful movie which will be remembered for many years to come. It also helps that a stunning leading performance from Danielle Deadwyler anchors the movie with this brilliant presence where you can sense the will to find justice for her son. This is a brilliant movie and is a must watch if only to provide extra context on the horrors that happened in our lifetime over the pond.