Twin Cities Film Festival coverage
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hill, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg
Screenplay: Michael Reilly Keith Beauchamp, Chinonye Chukwu
130 mins. Rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs.
The opening film of the Twin Cities Film Festival, Till is not the type of film you get excited to see. I knew going in that it would not be an easy watch. In fact, my wife, who accompanied me to the screening, wasn’t even sure she could sit through it, but we both came to the agreement that the film’s central theme is about seeing what happened to Emmett, and we felt it was appropriate to do so here.
In 1955, Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler, The Harder They Fall, Gifted) sends her son Emmett (Jalyn Hill, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The House with a Clock in its Walls) to visit family in the southern state of Mississippi, where life is even harder for Black Americans than it is in Chicago, where they live. Emmett has not been raised to fear White Americans in the way his cousins have down south. Emmett would never return home alive. Instead of letting her grief consume her, Mamie makes a radical decision: to display her dead son, untouched, for everyone to see what has happened to him in the name of racial hatred. This leads her to pursue conviction for the White men responsible.
Going into this film, it was well-known that Director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency, alaskaLand) would not be showing the actual lynching on screen, and I heard some rumblings about whether or not showing it would be necessary to the narrative. I recall going back to the 2020 unrest here in Minneapolis due to the murder of a Black man at the hands of police officers, and a common thread I recall hearing involved the fact that Black Americans are always forced to see racial violence on television or in real life, on an almost daily basis. That swayed me into the idea that the film would not need to display the scene itself, but I still needed to see how Chukwu would handle the narrative around that, and she does an amazing job of surrounding the event itself with powerful and hard-to-watch moments, but her decision to focus on reactions to the events creates a larger emphasis on character which drives the narrative through most of the film.
With Chukwu focusing on characters and reactions, the film becomes an acting showcase for the incredible turn by Danielle Deadwyler. I’ve seen some of her work, but I wasn’t extremely aware of her talents until seeing her carry a lot of the emotional weight in the film. A movie like this, with so much inherent history, trauma, and emotional grief, might not have worked without a stellar lead, and it thankfully has one. Let me be clear by saying that film has a stacked cast, including Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs, Do the Right Thing) as Mamie’s father, who travels with her to Mississippi to give testimony, and Whoopi Goldberg (The Lion King, Toy Story 3) as Mamie’s mother Alma, who views her daughter the same way Mamie views Emmett. If you can take your eyes off of Deadwyler’s devastating portrayal, you can see that Till is full of great performances, but she creates a gravitational pull with every moment.
Credit should be given to Jalyn Hill as Emmett. While he does not have a lot of screentime, it’s important to have his presence be felt throughout the entire film. Hill’s limited time in the film needs to remind us as viewers that the love for her son is more important to Mamie than the need for vengeance. I kept thinking how potentially traumatizing the role would be for a young actor to take on, and he provides joyful memories of Emmett’s life that drive Mamie forward.
The opening of the film is where the bulk of Hill’s performance is, and while Chukwu doesn’t come out and say it, the earlier portion of the film seems to indicate a dreamlike quality, with the heavier elements of the score coming into play and Deadwyler’s minute expressions indicate a surreal quality, as if she’s looking back at her time with her son. It’s never confirmed, but that’s how I interpreted this opening act.
The screenplay is based on 27 years of research conducted by co-screenwriter Keith Beauchamp, research that actually led to the reopening of the case back in 2004. I think their decision to shy away from a more complex story structure and just move chronologically from Point A to Point B works to their benefit. I’ll be real here and say that I don’t remember ever hearing about the story of Emmett Till in my school experience. I had read some articles online as an adult, and I remember the incredible short film My Nephew Emmett from a few years back that made me want to research the story even more, but I have to conclude that, unfortunately, not everyone knows this story. While the structure of the film feels simplistic, it increases the accessibility of this narrative to those that need to be educated on the life of Mamie and Emmett.
It all goes back to the story’s central theme of being seen. Mamie understood that Americans will never acknowledge the horrors and atrocities put upon the Black community unless they witness it for themselves. In that way, Till is a movie that craves to be seen, if only to put yourself into the shoes of those who knew and loved Emmett Till. I’ve referred to films like this as Shoes Movies because I’ll never fully understand what it is like to be Mamie, but for 130 minutes, I can walk in her shoes and understand a little bit more. I grew up watching movies about people who looked like me, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more fascinating to view the lives of people who don’t share my race, my gender, my sexual orientation, if only to further develop myself as a human. Till provided a little more insight in that journey.
Till is a movie that rests on incredible performances and the camera knows that focusing on reactions and strong physical acting, including extended takes that allow Deadwyler and the rest of the cast shine. It contains some of the year’s best performances and will be one of the more-talked-about movies this year.
-Kyle A. Goethe