Barbara Broccoli and Whoopi Goldberg amongst the producers on this high-profile civil-rights drama from Chinonye Chukwu, who made a pretty bang-up job of 2019’s Clemency, and seems an ideal choice for a harrowing, real-life story. Mamie-Till Bradley saw the thing that, as the cliché goes, a parent should never have to; her son Emmett’s body, dead on a coroner’s slab at 14 years of age, murdered by racists in back in 1955. In previous times, we might have seen these events from a white perspective, a neighbour, a lawyer, a friend. But it’s 2023, and the story is correctly seen from the POV of those who hurt the most ie the mother.
Till came out to little audience appreciation at the box-office in the US back in October; tough-sell prestige pictures really need awards to gain traction with the public these days. But Till is an important story worth championing; Chicago parent Mamie-Till (Danielle Deadwyler) dotes on her son Emmett (Jayln Hall), and reluctantly allows him to travel to Mississippi for work. Emmett forgets her instructions long enough to carelessly transgress his enforced social position; wolf whistling at a white grocery clerk is enough to trigger the insecurities of those around him and leads to his violent death. That’s mid-way through the story; the rest of the film finds an upbeat trajectory as Mamie-Till rejects the courtroom verdict and sets out to make equality her mission.
We’ve been here before with films like Selma, but Till is one of the better examples of how a news story from the past can be instructive now; it’s a character study of a woman, and the violence that she faces up to is kept almost entirely off-screen. What’s on screen is an unflinching view of personal heroics as Mamie transcends her position to become a leader with a cause. The key scene here depicts Till viewing her own dead son’s horrific appearance as a corpse, but an earlier scene in the grocery is equally carefully conveyed; Chukwu ably handles Emmett’s sudden disbelief about how easily his world is turned on its head. A series of closing credits reinforce our understanding of how the decks were set against the Till family; the killers confessed, the witnesses lied, and absolutely no-one was brought to justice.
Although there are moments of sentimentality, some shonky green-screen and a few moments where the constant emphasis on Mamie’s agony feels oppressive, Till is a film worth recommending to those who can handle the central subject; producer and supporting player Whoopi Goldberg even gives herself a big dramatic scene that’s far more than a cameo. Hopefully Till will finally reach an appreciative audience on home entertainment; Danielle Deadwyler’s huge leading performance should ensure that Till has a permanent shelf-life as a record of the agony that racism can create.