It’s hard to talk about “Till” without delving into all the things that surround a film like this. Political turmoil, a rise in racism and ambivalence to teaching racial history, and the continued exploitative nature of black trauma in cinema. All of this paired with a mini series that highlights the life of Mamie Till-Mobley released a month before this film went into wide release, and you can see how this movie has the deck stacked against it. You’d be forgiven if, upon seeing the poster, you rolled your eyes at yet another attempt to retell a tired story that, regardless of how relevant it still is today, only causes those that need to hear it the most ignore it and those that know it all to well tire of watching their worst nightmares displayed on screen once again. “Till” narrowly escapes the pitfalls lined up in front of it, but still exists in a time where even 60+ years removed from the events, feel like it’s more relevant and more ignore than ever.
So, for the sake of not getting too far into the weeds of everything, we’re going to focus solely on the film itself. Whether you’re tired of seeing black trauma in film or feel compelled to tell everyone how “woke Hollywood” strikes again, or worse, get excited to type the N word over and over again on Twitter now when someone mentions this film is going to be irrelevant. It shouldn’t be, but something like “Till” is just as polarizing today as it was in 1955. Because of all that surrounds it, this will be the last time I mention hot takes or seem to take any kind of stance of what is being said. This will be nothing more than a review of “Till” as it stands as a film. We’ll talk pacing, cinematography, editing, score, performances, screenwriting and more, because that’s what a film review should be. The undertaking of controversy in criticism of a medium can only extend so far before it transforms into something else entirely, and while I certainly have the capacity to do so, I have no interest in delving into all of that here.
Written and Directed by relative newcomer Chinonye Chukwu, “Till” is the story of educator and civil rights activist Mamie Till-Mobley, who dedicated her life to fighting for rights and freedom after her son Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. The film smartly chooses to focus almost exclusively on Mamie’s perspective, and puts the loss of a son front and center rather than rehash the brutality of a senseless and racially charged murder. “Till” of course has to lay the ground work for the tragedy to come, but chooses to on focus on Mamie and never show the murder itself. Most if not all of the violence is done off screen, with the story of “Till” more focused on what Mamie went through during the trial and what she chose to do with her life afterwards. It stars Danielle Deadwyler as the titular character Mamie, will supporting performances from Jalyn Hall (Emmett Till), Frankie Faison (Mamie’s father), and Whoopi Goldberg as Emmett’s grandmother.
The film sports star making turn from Deadwyler, who delivers a mesmerizing and gut wrenching performance as Mamie. Deadwyler is the true heart and soul of this film, and “Till” frankly doesn’t work without her impeccable work here. She is dialed into something truly harrowing and heartfelt, and demonstrates a deep connection not just to the material, but to a mother who would do anything for her children. She is simply profound her, elevating what could be a disastrous and even somewhat exploitative story into something more impactful and meaningful than what you would expect. “Till” also serves a reminder that Whoopi Goldberg’s still got it. Despite very limited screen time, Goldberg harkens back to what made her a very capable, award winning dramatic actress, something I think even myself has forgotten since she rarely takes on these kinds of things anymore. I honestly wished we go more of her, because even in the small glimpses of chemistry between Mamie and her mother, you can see the generational love and need to protect their children from harm between them.
More than anything, “Till” is a performance piece for Deadwyler, and it will be criminal if she’s not included on the shortlist of Best Actress this coming award season. Chukwu seems to have a deep understanding of the story, and carefully crafts an engaging, layered narrative that never feels like it’s purposefully trying to manipulate its audience. Of course, by its very nature “Till” conjures a deep emotional response, but Chukwu seems unconcerned with rehashing what we all know and trying to get into some aspects we may not. It’s not always successful, and comes close to falling in line with other iterations before it, but the choice to focus on Mamie as the film’s primary narrative allows it to narrowly escape the redundancy of previous retellings. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography is bright and vibrant juxtaposed against a dark and dreary tale, opting to flood each frame with bright greens, blues, and 1950s color palattes. Abel Korzeniowski’s score isn’t quite as soaring as “Till” may call for, but it isn’t distracting either, providing another layer of heartfelt story telling that engrosses you in the film’s more poignant moments.
The film is largely focused on the mother, but there is one scene where the destroyed body of Emmett Till is shown in graphic detail. Though brief, “Till” is trying to convey Mamie’s choice to have an open casket, wanting everyone to see what was done to her boy. On the one hand, this is purposefully, powerful, and effective. On the other, the film does so well getting its point across without graphic visuals that this is one of those moments that starts to feel like trauma rehashing. Thankfully, it is brief, and once again, quickly turns its attention back to Deadwyler. Chukwu’s choice of shot to heavily focus on faces is another smart decision, constantly choosing closes ups and long shot takes of its stars as thing happen around them and they react. This clearly gets the most out of her actors, and “Till” has performance bests in spades.
You’re not wrong for feeling like “Till” is just another black trauma movie with very little to say about things we already know. But there is still some relevance to it, and even more terrifying there is an effort to essentially remove this story from history entirely. So as exhausting as it might feel to rehash historical tragedies that have quite literally shaped and are still reshaping America today, “Till” remains an important piece of storytelling. There is a genuine craft and care here, with some smart narrative choices and a purpose to express tragedy through new or perhaps less seen eyes. If for nothing else, “Till” is all Deadwyler, who makes a case to be seen even if the film itself doesn’t necessarily do so. Yes, she is that damn good here. So good that I would recommend “Till” for her alone if it needed.
There’s more to seeing “Till” than that, though I’m sure given the current climate this recommendation will be met with a plethora of varying opinions. So, as a film, “Till” is very well made, well crafted, and masterfully performed, which should make it worth seeing if you can.
“Till” has its faults, and isn’t necessarily breaking any new ground, but has enough craft and Danielle Deadwyler giving every ounce of what she has to warrant a watch.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Till” is currently playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.