Emmett, 14 years, is excited to visit his family on his first solo train voyage from Chicago to Mississippi.
I saw the powerful film Till in February 2023 when it was released in France. It opened at the New York Film Festival on October 1, 2022, with a limited release following on October 14, then it became available in all states beginning October 28, 2022.
Andrew Kendall is a lecturer in film and literature at the University of Guyana. He specializes in courses in drama, postcolonial theory and academic writing where he challenges students to see the relationship between language, aesthetics, history and culture. He is a film columnist at Stabroek News and an individual member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). He has additional experience in magazine editing and video editing from his history as a journalist for print and television media. Beyond his experience in academics and criticism, Andrew also has worked as a freelance media communication and media consultant. I like his style.
Here’s an excerpt of his review. For the full piece by Andrew Kendall, click here.
“The fact that the story of Emmett, or Mamie Till has not been brought to the screen in a proper way before is not just a sign of Hollywood’s poor history on race but also speaks to the difficulty of this story – how to avoid the lurid and what to do to make a film that has an artistic thrust rather than a documentary of pain. Like “Amsterdam”, “Till” played for a week in cinemas here to an audience of a handful. Were audiences, too consumed with real-world tragedies, unwilling to sit through the trauma??”
The Historical Story
In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till had traveled from Chicago by train to visit with family in Money, Mississippi for a holiday. He was shopping at a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant—and Mrs Bryant said he whistled at her, a white woman.
Britannica.com reports what happened next…
Trigger alert, violent, upsetting set of historical facts:
“In the early morning hours of August 28, Roy Bryant, the cashier’s husband, and J.W. Milam, Bryant’s half brother, forced their way into Wright’s home and abducted Till at gunpoint. Bryant and Milam severely beat the boy, gouging out one of his eyes. They then took him to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where they killed him with a single gunshot to the head. The two men tied the teen’s body to a large metal fan with a length of barbed wire before dumping the corpse into the river.”
Not to be content with the brutal death of her son being swept under the rug, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, determines to have her Emmet’s funeral proceed as an open casket.
“Mamie Till kept her son’s casket open, choosing to reveal to the tens of thousands who attended the funeral the brutality that had been visited on her son. The appalling images of Till’s body in the casket appeared in the pages of Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, and his murder became a rallying point for the civil rights movement.”
It struck one of my most sensitive cords: injustice. Being ignorant of Emmett’s experience, I was horrified by the story. It overfilled my senses with the global collective of the beyond-painful memories of the historical records of oppression and abuses perpetrated by humans. It easily could have pushed me into a ‘useless emotional state,’ yet I was surprisingly and thankfully impressed by the film’s excellence as an art form.
The details powerfully present the subtle essence of what it is to be on the other side of humans. It contrasts the unspeakable brutality of human reality and unearths the regrettable history of the heinous assaults on human sovereignty and dignity of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Yet it equally reveals complex constructs associated with the best qualities of humankind, particularly those represented in motherhood. The scenes are skillfully sculpted into an exquisite and delicate yet powerful form, as Da Vinci could do with jagged scrap of marble.
Till is remarkable in many ways. The quiet and innate sense of human dignity and sovereignty brings out the best in humanity; this premise is ever so subtly embedded in the details. The details of being human are demonstrated in the role of a devoted mother, one whom 99,999 percent of mothers would aim to emulate.
The capacities and details of being human during the socio-political and economic time/space decades surrounding Emmett’s life in Chicago and on vacation were presented and delivered impeccably. All realms included well-depicted locations, subtle scenes, impressive casting, believable situations, clear deliberate considerations, realistic weighing of priorities, and making heart-wrenching decisions. Then… experiencing the consequences. It also offered the most courageous depiction of rejoining life after the death of a child.
The film elegantly and authentically weaves characters, personalities, jobs, situations and incidents that exemplify the complex balance of life and life choices during the decades of Emmett’s too-short lifespan as well as after. The film reveals the tenderness and devotion of a mother’s love and dedication to her child’s well-being. A trait often considered – even taken for granted – as an innate trait in the human and animal kingdoms.
Mamie comes from a Black family who migrated from Mississippi north to Chicago. She is divorced and solely responsible for supporting and raising her son – a markedly non-traditional and unfavorable social condition of the time; not as prevalent in the 1950s as in current times. My search reveals that during the 1950s-60s, the percentage of single mothers was 9-10 percent. Today four out of every ten children are born to an unwed mother; yet perhaps even unlikely to be a single mother as the tendency to raise families beyond the bounds of marriage has increased.
Under the stress of living through the most unthinkable external realities, the film adeptly leads viewers to focus on the artful role of motherhood. The role illuminates the higher-level states of a joyful life and demonstrates how a devoted mother instills a healthy balance of useful capacities in her son. The essence of this perspective is the power that lies quietly within the rich details of one of the most intimate and important roles in humanity – the mother-child relationship. This intimate and sometimes consuming role ultimately reveals the complex and delicate balance of role modeling, active instruction, unconditional love and rational support and discipline.
Life in Chicago enables Mamie to provide for her son and herself. In addition to the work of maintaining a home, she is able to hold a wage-earning job, as well as manage a healthy relationship with her partner Gene. Her seemingly ‘middle-class’ single mother work-life balance is a lot to manage and yet she remains clear that her ultimate and first priority is her son.
Allowing one’s 14-year-old child to travel alone reaches the depths of decision-making for any mother. Mamie is torn, being aware of the dangers in the severity of segregation in Mississippi; and knowing Emmett as a lighthearted clever, playful, spirited young boy. He is innocent and unaware of the danger. He has been well-educated and protected.
It is essential within motherhood to demonstrate for one’s children how to accept and learn how to manage the social and emotional aspects of their lives including understanding, coping with and managing decisions and emotions. Mamie does her best to instruct Emmett, to define values and help him grow into his sense of purpose, and to interact with confidence that doesn’t border on arrogance.
Most recognize social emotions that depend upon the thoughts, feelings or actions of other people as experienced, recalled, anticipated or imagined. She tries to prepare him to ‘tone down’ his enthusiasm for life in a sense; to demure to the conditions of his surroundings by adopting a low profile perhaps more akin to embarrassment, guilt, and shame than pride. Just to survive. “After all,” she wrote, “How do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only ever known love?”
She intuits. Her fear for his life becomes an obsession, yet she also recognizes this ‘sort of long-dreaded opportunity’ is an important step in his personal development.
An immediately recognizable, surly Oscar-winning performance by Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmet’s mother, really made me wonder why I had not seen more written of this film. Although I’ve since found that “Deadwyler’s performance had garnered widespread acclaim, and the film was named one of the best films of 2022 by the National Board of Review.” I also give kudos to the director Chinonye Chukwu and writers Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and producers Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp, and Chukwu. Noteworthy recognition to all of the talented performances. Discover the other principal and fill cast:
Danielle Deadwyler (Mamie Till-Bradley), Jalyn Hall (Emmett Till); Whoopi Goldberg (Alma Carthan); Haley Bennett (Carolyn Bryant); Sean Patrick (Thomas Gene Mobley); Jayme Lawson (Myrlie Evers); Jaylin Webb (Willie Hemphill); Frankie Faison (John Carthan)
I see this film as a parable of sorts; it speaks to themes much larger than itself. I was strongly impacted by my viewing, and I wanted to share it even as I feared I’d be unable to recount the profound complexities as I felt them and do it justice in a review.
I wondered why I had not seen more mention of this film. The only weakness in this film is predictability, which does not count and instead works in its favor since it is based on a well-documented barbarity.
Initially, I researched international reviews of Till, intending to enrich my references. While I wanted everyone to see it, and hoped all who did could renew or would newly adhere to uphold human rights and the values of human sovereignty and dignity, and ultimately to believe in the inherent and powerful good in humanity, I realize that is a lot to wish for.
The sociological value of collective experiences, which I consider the globality of humanity in art, music, theatre and cinema is well-documented. There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger. Taking part in drama and library activities improves attainment in literacy.
And you cannot imagine, even with all of my opinions, that your viewing will be a surprisingly delightful takeaway of your own. You may not even agree! If you’ve not yet seen the film, please do.
Editors Note, cited from Britannica.com, but widely reported elsewhere:
“In September 1955 an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. A grand jury subsequently opted not to indict the men on kidnapping charges. Protected by double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Emmett Till in an interview with Look magazine that was published in January 1956.”
“In 2017 Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to lying under oath during her first husband’s murder trial, falsely stating that Emmett Till had touched her and used crude language. However, she was never prosecuted.”