The Plot: Chicago, 1955. Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) takes good care of her 14-year-old son Emmett (Jalyn Hall). He’s curious about the world and when an offer comes up to visit relatives in Mississippi, he’s eager to learn more about where his family came from. This is despite his mother warning him that life is very different in the Deep South for African-American folk. An innocent remark at a shop there gets Emmett in trouble with the white locals. Tragic news soon reaches Mamie – Emmett has been lynched. She absorbs her incalculable grief and sets forth to demand justice for her only child…
The Verdict: Here’s another troubling dispatch from the frontlines of America’s ongoing struggle with racism, both casual and institutional. Till is not just another story about racial intolerance and injustice though or a straightforward us vs them narrative. At its core, it’s a story of a mother’s undying love for her murdered son and what the weight of that means on a personal, national and political level. It relates the true story of Mamie Till, an intelligent and forthright African-American woman who railed against the Mississippi legal system when her son was lynched. Her story became national news and she took to the media to highlight racism in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Not so free it seems. Like all good stories from the past, it has an immediate relevance to the present and highlights that justice is not always obvious.
Director Chinonye Chukwu is on the other side of justice this time round. Her previous film Clemency told a very different perspective of the justice system. Utilising some 27 years of research by Keith Beauchamp, who co-writes with Chukwu and Michael Reilly, it’s perhaps surprising that this story isn’t more widely known (on this side of the pond anyway) given its relevance to the US Civil Rights movement. The script is cleverly structured, avoiding the pitfalls of a lengthy courtroom drama or a wider pulpit piece about the evils of bare-faced racism in Mississippi (Alan Parker’s incendiary but brilliant Mississippi Burning gave us plenty of that). Chukwu and her co-writers hint at the wider implications of Mamie Till’s story, as she decides to put her battered son’s body on display to the public to see the ugly face of racism. There’s potential here for digressions, discussions with senators and lawmakers about implementing change. However, Chukwu knows that the beating heart of the story is Mamie and keeps the focus firmly – and justifiably so – on her story.
This is where Danielle Deadwyler comes in and fortifies Chukwu’s sterling work. If she wasn’t a household name before, Deadwyler will be now. Without the weight of audience expectations of, say, a peer like Zoe Saldana or Tessa Thompson, she builds up a simple but compassionate portrait of a woman’s fight for justice for her son. That’s even when the southern concept of justice is foggy at best and non-existent at worst. She’s quietly outstanding throughout in the kind of performance that isn’t deliberately crying out for an Oscar nomination but undeniably deserves one. In one signature scene when she takes to the stand, she captures everything human about dealing with immense grief and loss and how only a mother knows her son. The camera moves in close to her emotive face, but not in a dramatically manipulative way. Chukwu is capturing not only the impressive composure of this woman on the stand but also her lead actor who knows how to demonstrate righteous anger in a subtle way.
As the film draws to a close, there are some sobering facts in the coda including one about an anti-lynching law that is all too worrying about the state of America’s attitude to racism – then and now. What resonates the most about Till though is how focused and determined it is to tell a mother’s perspective, maintaining a human touch throughout. It may have flown in under the radar over here, but this is a powerful cry for justice that kicks off a new year at the movies and marks itself out as essential viewing.
Rating: 4 / 5