If Emmett Till were alive today, he’d be 81 — younger than 16 members of Congress and less than 16 months older than the president. But, as we know, he was lynched barely a month after his 14th birthday for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till, a new movie from director Chinonye Chukwu, tells the story through the eyes of Emmett’s mother, Mamie, who is perhaps most famous for insisting on an open casket for her son so mourners could see how severely he was mutilated. An extraordinary cast, led by Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie, illustrates the lynching and its aftermath with laudable artistry and humanity.
From the first shot of the movie, in which Mamie and Emmett (Jalyn Hall) sing together while cruising the streets of Chicago, the bond between mother and son is striking. Mamie is resolute and courageous, and she’s instilled the same fearlessness in Emmett by letting him express himself and protecting him from all danger. Consequently, Emmett is assertive, immature, ebullient, endearing, and a bit annoying. But each imperfect nuance — from his crooked teeth to the awkward way he crows along to a TV commercial — reminds us of his youth and how his personality does not qualify the injustice of the lynching.
Despite some apprehension, Mamie sends Emmett to visit his cousins in rural Mississippi for two weeks during the summer of 1955. In the small town of Money, Emmett purchases a few gumballs and whistles at the white grocery clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). His mother has warned him about white Southerners, but Emmett has not managed to internalize her message. Carolyn aims a handgun at the boy and his cousins as they flee in terror. They are no doubt shaken from the experience, but the family is otherwise unthreatened for a few days. Then, in the middle of the night, Carolyn’s husband and half-brother-in-law break into Emmett’s family’s home, kidnap him, and bludgeon and shoot him to death.
The rest of the film chronicles the funeral, the killers’ murder trial, and the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement. Deadwyler conveys Mamie’s grief and anger poignantly throughout. Most impressive is the scene when she testifies about how she knows the unrecognizable body found in a ditch is Emmett’s. Her testimony is shot in one take lasting several minutes, with the camera focused on her face as she struggles to preserve her composure.
Giving a shorter but no less touching performance is Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Mamie’s mother. Removed from the caustic world of talk shows and without her signature hairstyle and glasses, Goldberg is subdued, reflective, and unrecognizable. There are far too many characters for most of them to have much development, and even Emmett’s killers are almost ignored beyond the kidnapping scene. Instead, the film directs much of its ire at Carolyn, seemingly because she’s still alive. Bennett’s characterization isn’t vicious; her blank expression is nonthreatening — unlike photographs of the real Carolyn in the courtroom — and, as I recall, she’s silent until she calmly (falsely) testifies that Emmett propositioned and then assaulted her. But her constant appearances in the movie are a reminder that she has never been legally punished for her involvement. (As recently as August, a grand jury declined to indict her on kidnapping and manslaughter charges.)
In terms of technique, Till is not innovative and sometimes cloying. Abel Korzeniowski’s score, for instance, emphasizes sentimentality at the expense of drama and urgency. But the tragic, true story and the captivating performances, especially by Deadwyler, make Till worth seeing.