When I first heard about Chinonye Chukwu’s biographical drama centered around the infamous murder of Emmett Till, I was a little nervous. Depicting the horrors of racism has been a longstanding fascination of Hollywood, and yet they hardly ever get it right, often turning films into little more than trauma porn. That being said, by the time credits rolled at the world premiere on October 1st, I was positive this was the best movie I could hope to see at the New York Film Festival. Chukwu not only handles the touchiest subject matter with incredible sensitivity and respect, but manages to produce an emotional tour-de-force that, at its heart, is both an examination of a mother’s endless, dedicated love for her child, as well as an exploration of the need for solidarity and community.
At a press conference following the premiere, Chukwu said she accepted the opportunity to direct this film on three conditions: “First and foremost, the only way I’d be interested in telling this story is if I could focus my directorial vision towards Mamie [Till’s mother] and her emotional journey and her perspective. […] The second was that I didn’t want to show any physical violence inflicted upon black bodies. That was non-negotiable for me. The third is that I want to begin and end in a place of joy and love.” These conditions made all the difference.
While the film certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the aftermath and emotional toll of racist violence, it does so in a way that is humanizing, not objectifying. The characters aren't just pitiable, one-dimensional figures against whom violence is inflicted. Instead, we see Mamie’s full, nuanced emotional journey: the anger, the despair, even the laughs she was able to share with her son. This depth and range, which is even visible in the trailer, is captured by revelatory performances from lead actress Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Mamie Till-Mobley, as well as Jalyn Hall, who plays Emmett Till. The immersive experience created by the flawless acting of the entire cast is furthered by some incredible formal choices within the film itself.
Some aspects of the music, composed by Abel Korzeniowski, are reminiscent of horror films, which Chukwu says was purposeful. “Too often, music in films just describes what we’re seeing,” she said. In Till, the music describes feeling, echoing our own sense of dread and outrage. This is matched by the camerawork of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, who uses the dolly zoom made famous by Jaws (1975) to elucidate how, in many ways, what we’re watching is horror, but worse, because it actually happened, it’s actually part of American history; and because institutional racism still exists, it becomes obvious that the history discussed in this film didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act. That being said, the movie itself isn't nihilistic, far from it. Chukwu's emphasis on community gives audiences reason to hope.
Whenever we're shown a scene of mourning or emotional intensity, it's often done with Mamie being surrounded by friends, family and loved ones. Even the funeral scene makes use of an overhead shot to show just how many people came to support her demand for justice."What happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all," she says in a poignant speech towards the film's beautiful conclusion. This recognition of the need for collectivism and solidarity is refreshing in a society so focused around individualism, and may just be the reorientation of perspective needed today.
When asked about the relevance of this film in 2022, producer Whoopi Goldberg said “you know its importance. It’s not just us anymore. Gay folks can see [their struggles] reflected in this film, women too—it’s a universal story.” The oppression detailed in Till may put certain audiences in an uncomfortable spot, maybe even dissuade some from watching. I can’t caution against this more strongly. If we want a better future, it’s imperative that we recognize connections between past and present horrors. It may be hard to look, but to quote Mamie in the scene depicting Emmett’s funeral: we have to. Till hits theaters October 14th, and you should really go see it.
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