MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, April 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A historical film about grief and justice is now available to stream. Arts and Culture editor Collin Garbarino is here now to talk about the tragic story of Emmett Till.
COLLIN GARBARINO: The historical drama Till was one of the best movies I saw last year, but the movie only made 11 million dollars worldwide, so I’m guessing most of our listeners haven’t seen it yet. But now’s your chance. This week the movie became available to rent on various streaming platforms. The film isn’t easy to watch, but it’s an excellent reenactment of one of America’s saddest moments.
MUSIC: [Opening Music]
This movie’s a tragedy, but it starts out on a hopeful note. It’s 1955, and 14-year-old Emmett Till is a joyful child taking his first steps into manhood.
Emmett—his family calls him Bo—lives in Chicago with his mother Mamie. Bo is excited at the prospect of visiting cousins in Mississippi. Mamie has misgivings.
ALMA: Not a bad thing for him to know where he come from.
MAMIE: Chicago is all he needs to know. I don’t want him seeing himself the way those people are seen down there.
She worries he won’t understand the different social expectations for blacks living in the Deep South. Her worries prove well-founded.
TV ANCHOR: This is a breaking news bulletin. We interrupt this broadcast to report a breaking news story. The body of Emmitt Louis Till has been found dead in the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi.
After the young boy’s brief encounter with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, her husband Roy Byrant and J.W. Milam abduct Emmett and kill him.
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.
MAMIE: [crying] Oh, my Lord! Get him out of the box. Get him out of the box! Get him out of the box. He can’t breathe.
Her performance also holds depths of nuance. She moves from sorrow to self-recrimination to outrage to resolve, sometimes in the same moment. I, along with many other critics, registered shock and dismay when Deadwyler was snubbed for a best actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. She gives a magnificent performance.
MAMIE: When it came time to place him down, so he could make his own way around, I touched every inch of him, every bend. My hand knew him with my eyes closed.
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.
DR. HOWARD: But I do not believe that justice will be rendered by twelve jurors who look exactly like the two so-called men who are on trial.
Till’s murderers get little screen time. They seem to fade into the background of this story about the futile struggle for justice.
The movie reserves its harshest criticism for Carolyn Bryant, Emmett’s accuser. Now in her late 80s, she’s the only person involved in the case still alive. And just last year she once again escaped indictment for Emmett’s death. She’s presented as a malicious liar who wanted Emmett dead, but her real-life role in his lynching isn’t quite so clear.
The movie also introduces many of the civil rights heroes who fought alongside Mamie.
MAMIE: Thank you for driving us, Mr. Evers.
MEDGAR: Please, ma’am. Call me Medgar.
Till contains disturbing scenes and racial slurs. But it’s a harder film to watch than its PG-13 rating would suggest. 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. I wept more than once when I saw it the first time. The fact that it’s a true story makes it even more difficult.
RAYFIELD: Her story has changed the world, because she had the courage to make it not just her own, but all of ours.
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. In the end, the movie hints 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. And it asks each of us to reflect on our own commitment to justice.
During the open-casket funeral, Emmett’s aunt tells Mamie, “I can’t look.” Mamie responds, “We have to.”
She’s not just talking to the aunt. She’s talking to us too.
I’m Collin Garbarino
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