A harrowing, affecting film about perhaps the most famous hate crime of the 20th century, Till puts a real human face on what is, for most of us, a story in a textbook, and does it in a way that creates a lasting, unforgettable stamp of storytelling about contemporary racism.
There are plenty of films that have dealt with racism over the years. The best of them merely turn a lens toward hate and injustice; others veer toward melodrama and caricature. Till could be forgiven for that small sin, but director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu keeps the wheels on the track at pivotal moments, grounding the film and keeping it on task.
This isn’t a film that surprises but still somehow manages to shock in a film whose outcome everyone knows. It is no spoiler that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, was brutally beaten to death and dumped in a river by white men angry at him for daring to whistle at a white woman. Neither is it a spoiler to reveal that the men were acquitted by an all-white jury and later fully confessed to the killing in an interview with the magazine Look.
But it’s the pure gall of those involved, the complete lack of respect for human life they displayed, and the willingness of an entire American town to shrug and look away that elicits gasps from a 21st-century crowd of moviegoers — some of whom no doubt may have said of more contemporary race-related crimes things like “Well, he shouldn’t have resisted,” or “I don’t understand why they have to riot.” Till is the sort of film whose emphatic response drowns out those comments.
The film follows Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler of The Harder They Fall), through the unspeakable ordeal, chronicling her bravery and defiance through her grief. Mamie’s decision to give Emmett a funeral with an open casket remains an act of defiance on par with the actions of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr., but somehow she is not viewed in the same light as those contemporaries.
Till guides us through that trauma, and Deadwyler’s performance is certainly destined to be one of the best of the year, a tale told in thirds: Her journey starts as a loving, upbeat and optimistic woman, then a grief-stricken mother, then almost an avenging angel, a crusader determined to hold a mirror to a racist society. In all of those modes, Deadwyler excels.
Jaylyn Hall embodies Emmett, called Bo by his friends and family, in a way that lasts throughout the film, his big, bright smile both a joy and a haunting specter. On the other side, Haley Bennett plays Carolyn Bryant, whose actions led to Emmett’s death, as a sheltered shrew, a forebear to Karens around the country.
Smaller, but still key, performances by Frankie Faison, Whoopi Goldberg and Sean Patrick Thomas anchor the film and give it that much more weight. It all adds to a strong story that is not at all unpredictable but undeniably powerful — a movie that, for a human being, resonates for days or weeks after.