Two things can be simultaneously true about Till: it is an all-too-relevant story that must be told and it is a mediocre movie bolstered by a compelling lead performance.
The new biopic directed by Chinonye Chukwutells the powerful true story of the lynching and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the sorrow that lead to the activism of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
Just a boy, Till (Jalyn Hall) was lynched and murdered while on a trip to visit his cousins in Mississippi in 1955. A Chicago native, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) warns her son that things are different down south and he’d be best served to keep a low profile and mind his manners around white people. A Black boy raised to know only love could not have understood the hatred and cruelty in the hearts and minds of the white folks he encountered. After an innocent interaction with a white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant (Hayley Bennett), was deemed an affront to her, Emmett is wrenched from his family’s home in the middle of the night, lynched, beaten, and murdered by two white men.
Missing for days until his brutalized and bloated corpse is finally recovered after being left in the river, Mamie chooses to have an open-casket funeral so the world could see what the south did to her son. Thousands lined up for the viewing and even more saw the heartbreakingly horrific photos published in magazines. Though neither white man responsible for his murder was ever charged, nor did Bryant suffer any consequences for her actions, the brutal crime helped galvanize the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
A fairly standard biopic, Till’s strength comes from Deadwyler’s performance. She is a mother in anguish and Chukwu doesn’t shy away framing of her distraught face in uncomfortable close-ups. In one look, Deadwyler’s face conveys anger, love, anguish, helplessness and grief that a mother experiences. It’s these scenes that are the most effective. After directing Alfre Woodard is a stirring role in 2019’s Clemency, Chukwu once again demonstrates that she knows how to bring a powerhouse performance out of her lead actress. This is Deadwyler’s time to shine and her performance guides viewers through some of the film’s more uneven pacing and conventional production values.
Where Till fails to deliver is in its cinematography, which often gives a bright, glossy, and wistful view of things like something out of a less-saturated Douglas Sirk melodrama. To put quite simply, it isn’t an interesting movie to look at. It feels as though it is a missed opportunity for cinematographer Bobby Bukowski to show true contrast between Chicago and Mississippi, which could have furthered the disparity between the two American realities in 1955.
Another undoing of the film is the overly melodramatic score which at times distracts from the evocative performances on-screen, undercutting the heartache experienced by not just Mamie, but the entire Black community.
Chukwu, who also wrote the script, does a great service to the legacy of Till-Mobley but gets bogged down in the film’s denouement when trying to tie her legacy into the Civil Rights Movement. Attempting to provide historical context, Till loses steam and power as Chukwu dives into too much exposition in order to cover the groundwork of the NAACP and the work of figures like Medgar Evers. While providing the historical context is welcome, the narrative turn detracts from the climax in which Mamie delivers the truth in court.
Though not a wholly successful film, Till is worth the watch for Deadwyler’s performance. She will likely be a factor in awards season.