Chinonye Chukwu’s new movie Till, which is now out in theaters, is a difficult prospect. The basis for its story is the brutal 1955 lynching of the teenager Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, an event that has endured in the public consciousness largely because of the actions of his mother, Mamie, who took the vital step of arranging an open casket funeral for her son and wielded the power of the Black press to disseminate images of his unrecognizable body far and wide. Till is a movie about Mamie, more so than Emmett. It’s about white supremacist violence, of course. But its more immediate concern is the aftermath of that violence for a woman whose grief becomes a public, historical fact, a pivotal episode in an ongoing fight which, from where she’s sitting, often feels completely beyond her. It’s about the murky politics of image management, and “perfect” victimhood, and other concerns that would seem tangential to the bare reality of a mother’s unimaginable loss — problems that would seem beyond the point — and how, for the public, these problems risk becoming the point. It’s about that mother’s grief. And it’s about justice, too, of course. Though, if you know this story, you know that justice is not promised here. That, too, is the point.
Someone with awareness of this history may approach Till warily, concerned over how it will handle two crucial aspects of the story in particular. The first is the incident that started it all: Emmett’s brief interaction with Carolyn Bryant, and the maneuvering it demands in showing how to undercut a lie without oversimplifying the truth. The other is its approach to Emmett’s body. We live in a moment that has only made clearer how easily images of racial violence can be circulated, reiterated, and reproduced. Mamie Till’s argument was, of course, that we cannot look away, not because Black citizens (particularly in her time) were in any way naive about the realities of this violence, but because the images might help to render that knowledge into an even more immutable, even more actionable, indisputably public fact. Till is being released in a different moment. This is the age of bodycam footage and social media. The public fact is now omnipresent. The problem we face now is less one of looking versus looking away than it is of unavoidability. These images are everywhere — in part, one imagines, because of the force of Mamie Till’s argument and the ethical pathway it set before us. We are still confronted with a duty to look. But we are now equally confronted with the despair of so much looking and so little change.
What does that mean for a movie? It means, among other things, that some people will not see Till for the same reasons that they avoid the seeming glut of films about about slavery. There’s an understandable sense of exhaustion with films like these. Even as films about Black life have for many years surpassed the genre defaults of the civil rights era and American slavery, it’s also true, especially in the sphere of prestige, that they remain hallmarks for the industry. That’s a shame in case of Till, which is an impassioned melodrama on the surface, unafraid of facing tragedy head-on and allowing ample space for grief, anger, and fear, but which is also a wise movie about the complicatedly political world Mamie Till finds herself in after the death of her son. The movie shows her navigating the world of the press, of politics by way of the NAACP, of southern justice (or in her case, its lack); it has room for ideas about Black migration, giving an ample but subtle précis of why so many Black families fled the South after Emancipation for urban centers like Chicago, where Mamie’s family landed. It gives us a Mamie Till who needs to be convinced to approach her son’s death and memorialization in outright political terms, rather than in terms of her own, more personal need for justice; it gives us Black organizers who need to figure out how to make such a tall demand in a moment of great tragedy.
But perhaps most of all, Till gives us a nightmare. In a way, that’s how the movie starts. We open innocently, with Mamie (played by Danielle Deadwyler) and Emmett (Jalyn Hall) in her car, singing along to the radio on their way to buy clothes for Emmett’s upcoming trip to Mississippi. The moment is endearing, but Chukwu does not let the lightness of it last long before stark worry crosses Mamie’s face, and the music begins to screech at a terrifying pitch. For a moment, it’s as if Till has become a horror movie — solely because of a mother’s worry. Mamie has feelings about the South. It’s where her mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), is from, and after all, they have family down there: Emmett’s leaving to visit cousins, and should be in good hands.
The problem, in a way, is Emmett, who only knows the relative freedoms of growing up in a city like Chicago, with its thriving Black population and its distance, socially and otherwise, from a life that Mamie feels is still a little too rooted in the past. She gives him heartbreaking advice: “Make yourself small.” It isn’t that Chicago is perfect; it’s that growing up there has allowed Emmett to feel big. Or big enough. Not free of prejudice, but not afraid of it, either. Hall’s performance is crucial here. He is almost overbearingly innocent. You can feel the movie nudging you toward some understanding of why that might be, toward some acknowledgement of the ways that innocence in one context risks coming off as recklessness, an utter lack of caution, in another. It’s the difference between growing up in fear and not.
Chukwu’s script, co-written with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, is interesting for all of the predicaments it stares down and quietly works its way through. Beauchamp’s contributions are notable because of his prior work on the subject, both as the director of the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till and what came after, when the revelations from that project encouraged the FBI to reopen the case. Legally, nothing new came of that. But his collaboration with Chukwu, and the knottiness of this story, prove penetrating nonetheless. The historical rigor, combined with Chukwu’s talent for carving a story after heightened feeling and a keen attention to her actors’ faces, has resulted in a movie that, for its heartbreak, feels energized and urgent, not a point-blank period drama but a depiction that ripples with conflicts and questions.
After her son’s death, Mamie gets swept up into a series of difficult conversations. With her (separated) parents (Frankie Faison plays her father, John); and her partner Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas), who proves a complicating factor for a white press that would sooner promote an idea of Mamie as a harlot than as a grieving mother; and members of the NAACP, including the Black entrepreneur T. R. M. Howard (Roger Guenveur), a young Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) and Medgar’s wife, Myrlie (Jayme Lawson), an activist, but also a mother, whose voice may prove most relevant of all. Mamie is going to make snap judgments — including, perhaps most painfully, the choice to invite a photographer from JET Magazine to photograph her son’s body on the autopsy table, only moments after she’s seen it for the first time. In the movie’s finest scene, Emmett’s funeral, she’s also going to bear the grief of others. For many of us, Emmett Till lives on in our minds as a face. Or, really, as a juxtaposition: the happy, jovial boy that he was before, and what he became afterward, with all of the contours of his smile and personhood morphed into something unspeakable. Perhaps because of this, Chukwu goes out of her way throughout Till — and, most searingly, during Emmett’s funeral — to zero in on Black faces. Part of what makes Deadwyler’s thoroughly committed performance so impressive is her handling of the camera’s scrutiny, particularly late in the movie, when testifying at the ensuing trial.
But hers is not the face I have in mind when I think of Emmett’s funeral. It’s everyone else. It’s the way that Chukwu shows us the moment that each mourner steels themselves for the unimaginable, and then is blown away, utterly shattered, by the reality of what awaits them in that open casket being so much worse than they’d expected. All of which is very much to Mamie’s point: that even the people who know this is real will not believe it until they see it. The power of Till is as much in what it gives us as in what it withholds. It does not show us Emmett’s graphic murder. It does not need to. His face is enough. The faces of everyone else, seeing his for the first time, are enough.