In August 1955, 14 year old Emmett Till left his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. Only weeks later, he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered after being accused of harassing a white woman. It was a case that not only put the long history of persecution of the black American population in the spotlight, but also made Till an icon for the civil rights movement. All because his mother Mamie refused to accept that his death was just another number.
Her story is told in Till, which sees director Chinonye Chukwu return to the London Film Festival after the success of Clemency, which was screened in 2019. Both place determined black women at the centre of situations driven by racial attitudes and both are demanding, powerful watches. Till follows Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) as the brutal killing of her son turns her into a reluctant political activist. With an office job in the police department – she was the only black woman – and a comfortable apartment, she knew she enjoyed far more freedom than her relatives in Mississippi but the loss of Emmett prompted her to take the drastic action of putting his body on public view so everybody could see the savagery of his beating. The men accused of his murder were found not guilty – it only took the all-white jury an hour to decide – but Mamie went on to be a powerful voice for equality and this year saw US President Joe Biden sign The Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, making lynching a federal hate crime.
After her debut with Clemency, Chukwu delivers on all promise she showed just three years ago in a dignified, heartfelt film, one that never sensationalises but always shows just enough for us to both comprehend what happened to the 14 year old, and feel at least some of its impact. When Mamie first sees Emmett’s body, we’re given a vague impression of his head: that, in itself, is bad enough, but when his body is on public view, we get the full force. Gone is the smiling, cheerful face that we see in the early stages of the film. What replaces it is a bloated, bruised mass, something that can’t be described as a face. The rest of his body is equally damaged. The violence that caused it is treated in much the same way: all we hear are Emmett’s cries of pain and the shouts of his attackers. We never see it happen and we don’t need to.
At the heart of the film is an outstanding performance from Deadwyler, one that has already marked her out as an early front runner in the race for the Best Actress Oscar. Passionate, determined and realistic, there are moments when she rips your heart to shreds. Her howl at the first sight of her son’s coffin as it’s unloaded from the train will pierce your soul and she does it all over again when she first sees her son’s shattered body, creating what are increasingly rare moments in the cinema. Total and utter silence. While Deadwyler will receive the lion’s share of attention – and rightly so – Haley Bennett, in the much smaller but equally significant role of Carolyn Bryant, who accused Emmett of harassment, is astonishingly impressive. In just a handful of appearances and with minimal dialogue, she embodies hatred just through her eyes and facial expressions. And chills you to the bone.
Till isn’t a comfortable watch. Nor should it be. By the end, you may feel ashamed of the colour of your own skin, but it’s an essential film, one with intelligence and compassion. It’s a story that’s echoed down the years since 1955 and, thanks to Chukwu’s film, it will continue to reverberate, underlining its many important lessons with both dignity and an insistence on being heard and seen.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Universal Pictures | London Film Festival, 15 and 16 October 2022 | UK cinemas from 13 January 2023. | Dir. Chinonye Chukwu | Danielle Deadwyler, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg, Jalyn Hall.