Chinonye Ckukwu’s Till is not only a poignant and delicate telling of one of the darkest crimes in American history, it puts Danielle Deadwyler front-and-center in one of the most powerful star-making performances in recent film history.
Deadwyler stars as Mamie Till, a widow living contently in Chicago with her 14-year-old son Emmett (Jayln Hall) in 1955. Emmett accompanies his uncle to his farm in Mississippi to spend a few weeks with his cousins. At a store, Emmett whistles at a white woman Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). Three days later, two white men abduct Emmett, beat and murder him, and dump him in a river.
Distraught at the loss of her son, Mamie decides to show Emmett’s brutalized face to the world. The subsequent outrage over the lynching leads to the arrest of the two men in Mississippi. While in the midst of dealing with her loss, Mamie must go to the place where her son was killed and attempt to discover some level of justice.
Deadwyler is nothing short of mesmerizing. The film lives and dies with her. If she was not up to this monumental task, everything falls apart. So much of her characterization is based not on big speeches or grand gestures, but on silent anguish and pain.
The standout scene comes when Mamie is shown Emmett’s body for the first time. The assault and death have only been alluded to, but this is the moment the audience sees what has been done. We know it’s going to be bad. Deadwyler has an initial burst of shock, but then clears the room and measures herself to view her boy. She studies the body and feels bloated flesh. All the while barely able to look, but unable to look away. It’s a stunning scene and a truly magnificent piece of acting.
By focusing all of the attention on Mamie, the film turns what otherwise would be a generalized injustice into a personal drive. This is not an example of the African American people of 1955 rising up to shine light on wrongs. This is an example of one woman trying to find closure for the loss of her son. This laser focus allows Ckukwu to acknowledge other forces at work, but not give them the credit they are looking for. This is about a mother losing her son.
The rest of the cast are mostly ornamental. Hall, Bennett, and Whoopi Goldberg as Mamie’s mother all have very little to do. Goldberg has maybe 10 lines, while Bennett has half that. Hall is more of an archetype than the actual Emmett Till. John Douglas Thompson does very well in a small role as Emmett’s conflicted Uncle. Medgar and Merlie Evers are portrayed in the film by Tosin Cole and Jayme Lawson, respectfully. While their inclusion feels a bit clunky, both actors do a fine job in the roles.
The script is a bit on the conventional side, but Deadwyler and Ckukwu do such a magnificent job of framing it with grace that it’s easy to overlook any of the smaller faults. Even if the film leans into some of those Southern clichés and expected beats, the earnestness by the filmmakers grants the benefit of the doubt.
Till is a story that needs to be told. Ckukwu once again proves she is a directorial voice to be reckoned with while Deadwyler is going to be a star for the unforeseen future. They both deserve it.
Till is now playing in select theaters now and will expand to a wide release on October 28