TILL – Review by Martha K Baker

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Till is a powerful movie. Its strength rises not just from the story of racism it tells, for the background story has been told often, and not just from its unique perspective, but also from its stunning presentation in film form. Till is about Mamie Till-Mobley — the mother, the mourner — more than about her murdered son.

Emmett Till, a boy from Chicago, turned 14 in August 1955. Days later, he headed to Mississippi to vacation with his cotton-picking cousins. His Southern-bred mother does not want her sweet, singing boy to go. “Be small down there,” she instructs him.

In Money, Mississippi, Emmett was lynched by white men from the “citizens’ council,” bent on stopping Blacks from voting. Mamie Till demanded that the boy’s bloated, bruised, and bludgeoned body be photographed for the newspapers. “I want America to bear witness,” she declared.

Danielle Deadwyler inhabits the role of Mamie Till-Mobley. Never for a moment does she fade or blanche from the camera’s concentration. Weeping, waving good-bye to her “BoBo,” grasping another mother’s hand, or demanding retribution, Deadwyler commands the screen. She leads a cast that includes Jalyn Hall as Emmett, Whoopi Goldberg as Mamie’s mother, and Haley Bennett in the unforgiving role of the accuser.

They speak lines extruded from history by Michael Reilly, Chinonye Chukwu, and Keith Beauchamp (Beauchamp has researched the Tills’ saga for 25 years). Especially well crafted is Mamie’s monologue on the stand, the camera never leaving her face as she speaks of her boy. In 2019, Chukwu directed the unfortunately-little-seen Clemency and brings that wealth of experience to Till.

She and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski direct cameras in imaginative ways — peering through domestic doorways, droning over heads, tracing translucent tears, hiding then revealing a boy’s body. Abel Korzeniowski’s music matters, from “Sincerely” at the start to “Peace Like a River” at Emmett’s funeral. The lighting, especially on Black faces, is remarkable throughout; in the sun-drenched courtroom, as the Blacks are forced to stand, the seated white supremacists are bleached.

Till resounds with grief, not with violence: Sounds of Emmett’s beating are anesthetized, but his mother’s classic keening knifes surgically.

Till is a woman’s story. It catches the breath of life and demands attention.

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Martha K. Baker (Archived Contributor)

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.