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‘Till’ Review: Danielle Deadwyler Shines, But the Truth Is Brutal Enough

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The murder of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old Black boy lynched in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi—was a major inflection point in the civil rights movement of the last century. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was galvanized into activism by her horrible loss, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Medgar Evers and other leaders in the struggle. Her story is a seismic one, a tragedy that helped give way to change.

But does that mean it should be a film? When Till (premiering at the New York Film Festival on Saturday) was first announced, there was an immediate negative reaction online. The film, from director Chinonye Chukwu, seemed poised to be yet another movie that mines Black pain for awards clout, seeking gratitude and reverence for its recitation of known and terrible things. 

Chukwu has avoided some of that in her film, which she co-wrote with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, the latter of whom became something of a Till scholar through his close connection with Till-Mobley, who died in 2003. The film is less sensational and lurid than some feared it would be. There’s often a gentleness to its approach, a simple and gracious humanity allowed to exist in what could have been sheer exploitative misery.

Still, it’s hard to not think about how often we’ve seen a version of what’s so palpably illustrated in Till: a Black woman weeping in agony over the death of a child, stolen from her by violence. Till joins a telling tradition in that way, adding another name to a list of actors who have had to keen and wail as a visceral representation of an entire community’s grief. Till might distinguish itself with its careful true-story framing, but it is still at its root a testament to the trope. It’s a film aimed at education that only reasserts old lessons—valuable as those lessons may be, Till’s dedication to narratives of trauma exposes it to questions of necessity. 

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One of Till-Mobley’s most powerful decisions in the wake of her son’s death was to invite mourners and press photographers to see Till’s body, bloated and battered beyond recognition. It was important, she figured, that people actually see what America’s racist violence looks like up close, in all its mangle and rot. Till-Mobley’s story cannot be properly told without a depiction of this choice, her brave determination that the young Till’s death not become an abstraction. 

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But watching Till, one wonders if those images needed re-creation. The film inserts a filter between the audience and what was before—because of Mobley-Till’s bold, instructive act—plain and brutal fact. It’s too easy to see the gears of the movie turning as Mobley-Till (Danielle Deadwyler) stands over her son’s body in the morgue. However tactfully Chukwu stages the scene, it is still something staged, an act of imagination pitched toward dramatic payoff. Chukwu has trouble reconciling her sense of discretion with her film’s perhaps innate mandate to demonstrate, to reenact.

We don’t see Till die, but we do see him, in the film’s mournful beginning stretches, vividly alive. He’s played by Jalyn Hall, a warm and expressive young performer who renders the young Till with heartbreaking sweetness and naïveté. Watching his scenes is dreadful because we know what is coming, and we fear how far the film will go in showing it. Chukwu pulls away just in time, but we have still sat with Till’s, and Hall’s, bright light long enough that it all feels like a cruelty anyway. Of course, the point is to provoke such sharp sorrow and yearning—because Till’s fate was a cruelty—but what do those feelings mean when they are born of such a lushly-hued and scored film, a work of art above all else?

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That’s one of the pertinent questions to mull over as Till unfolds, a dutiful walk through the events leading up to and following Till’s death, particularly the trial of his murderers, who were acquitted. Rising to challenge viewers’ qualms about the movie’s existence is Deadwyler, whose stirring performance may be reason enough to see the film. Deadwyler, an emergent talent who recently dazzled in The Harder They Fall and Station Eleven, has a sturdy command of the film’s desired tone, balancing its intimate character study with its more sweeping, declarative purpose.

Her courtroom scene, in which Till-Mobley is forced to testify to the simple truth of her son’s death, is a breathtakingly detailed portrait of fury and anguish barely contained. Chukwu holds close on Deadwyler’s face as Till-Mobley speaks to a largely unsympathetic audience, already aware that the trial will end in injustice. Here, Till is at its most cinematic, but also, somehow, its most sensitive. Maybe this moment—so insistently and persuasively performed—justifies everything else. And yet, I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who, when confronted with the prospect of seeing this film, decides instead to let history speak for itself.

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