MOVIE | A heart-rending retelling of the story of Emmett Till forces viewers to confront humanity’s sin and brutality
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➤ Rated PG-13
➤ S2 / V6 / L3*
In 1955, Emmett Till’s lynching shocked America. Till tells the story of the 14-year-old’s brutal murder and the miscarriage of justice that followed.
The movie begins with Emmett’s life in Chicago and his excitement at the prospect of visiting cousins in Mississippi. His mother Mamie has misgivings about Emmett’s trip, worrying he doesn’t understand the different social expectations for blacks living in the Deep South. Her worries prove prescient.
Two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, abduct Emmett and kill him after the young boy’s encounter with Bryant’s wife Carolyn. Mamie’s grief hardens into resolve to see justice done. But justice for blacks in Mississippi proves hard to come by.
Director Chinonye Chukwu has created a beautiful, heart-rending tragedy. High-quality production values provide a rich background for a film that ultimately relies on powerful emotional storytelling.
Jalyn Hall portrays Emmett Till as a fun-loving boy who believes himself to be on the cusp of manhood—watching men drag him to his death is truly horrifying. Danielle Deadwyler is astonishingly good as Emmett’s mother Mamie. In one scene, she becomes a vessel for raw grief, but her performance also holds depths of nuance. She moves from sorrow to self-recrimination to outrage to resolve, sometimes in the same moment.
The cavalier attitude many whites in Mississippi held toward Emmett’s lynching is shocking, and Till shows with scenes both explicit and subtle the impossibility of finding justice in that context.
Interestingly, the movie reserves its harshest criticism for Carolyn Bryant Donham, Emmett’s accuser. Now in her late 80s, she’s the only person involved in the case still alive, and earlier this year she once again avoided indictment for Emmett’s death. She’s presented as a liar who wanted Emmett dead, but her actual role in his lynching isn’t so clear.
Strangely, Till’s actual murderers get so little screen time that they seem to fade into the background.
Till is a hard film to watch. Movies don’t usually subject audiences to such brutality involving children. We’re not used to seeing a child’s savaged and bloated corpse lying beneath a mother’s weeping gaze. The fact that it’s a true story makes it even more difficult.
There’s no happy ending, but Till does end with a sense of hope. The murder of Emmett Till changed the way many Americans looked at race. At one point, Mamie asks God why this happened. By the end, we feel that through one boy’s death others might live.
Till is a tough movie about a tough time in America’s history. But this pivotal moment deserves this powerful retelling. It forces us to look at humanity’s sin and brutality.
During the open-casket funeral, Emmett’s aunt tells Mamie, “I can’t look.” Mamie responds, “We have to.”
She’s talking to us too.
*Ratings from kids-in-mind.com, with quantity of sexual (S), violent (V), and foul-language (L) content on a 0-10 scale, with 10 high
10 movies that grapple with race
- To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner / 1967
- In the Heat of the Night / 1967
- Mississippi Burning / 1988
- The Help / 2011
- 42 / 2013
- The Butler / 2013
- Hidden Figures / 2016
- Loving / 2016
- Fences / 2016
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