Opening night of the 2022 Twin Cities Film Fest (TCFF) featured the local premiere of Chinonye Chukwu’s new film Till, a biographical drama set in the American 1950’s segregated south. It is based on the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley (played devastatingly well by the amazing Danielle Deadwyler – you might know her as Cuffee from the 2021 film The Harder They Fall) who pursued justice after the lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till (played by Jalyn Hall, called “Bobo” affectionately thought out the film), in 1955 Mississippi.
The film has two distinctive parts; the first part takes place in Chicago, Illinois where Mamie, her unmarried partner Gene Mobley, and Bobo lived a comfortable life. Bobo’s father Louis passed away in 1945 while serving in the Army, and his only personal item: a ring with his initials was the only way Bobo knew his father. Mamie worked long hours as a secretary, and also took care of her son, having moved with her parents from Mississippi to Chicago more than 30 years prior.
That summer in 1955, Mamie‘s uncle Moses (played by John Douglas Thompson) and his wife Elizabeth (played by Keisha Tillis) invited Emmett to visit his Mississippi farm for two weeks. He would spend time getting to know his cousins and helping with the farm chores. Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) was worried that Emmett would not be accustomed to the rules that existed in the segregated south. Even though racism existed in both places, the rules for Black people were stricter down in Mississippi.
Mamie sat down with her son and recommended that Emmett avoid white people. She told him to “be small” and it seemed as if fourteen-year-old Emmett understood. He packed his father’s ring so he could show it to his cousins. At the train station, the mother and son hugged for such a long time that Emmett almost missed his train. If only Mamie had known that it would be the last time she would see her son alive. When Bobo arrived in Mississippi, he played with his cousins and went to the same places they would go. That included visiting a store to buy candy and drinks. The store was run by a white woman named Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett) and while visiting the store, Emmett thought Carolyn looked like the picture of a movie star he had in his wallet so he whistled. While his whistle was not done as means to antagonize, Carolyn Bryant took offense to it but the boys fled before Carolyn could act on her offense.
A few days later in the middle of the night, two white men with guns had kidnapped Emmett, much to the protest of Preacher Moses, his wife Elizabeth and the young cousins. He was taken by truck to another farm and while the movie did not show it, it was clear that he was suffering from an extensive beating based on the screams that were heard in the nighttime. Emmett couldn’t be found for several days until his body was found in a nearby river. He had been shot and beaten almost beyond recognition. Mamie was worried sick at first, but it wasn’t until a family member informed her that she had gotten a phone call saying that Emmett was found dead.
Mamie arranged for Emmett’s body to be returned by coffin to Chicago. She greeted the coffin and in one of the film’s most powerful moments, she cried out in grief at the sight of the coffin, only being supported by the wheelchair she was sitting in as not to collapse from the immense grief and pain. Mamie identified her son’s body at a Chicago funeral home. At the funeral home, the mortician wanted to make Emmett’s face and body more presentable, but Mamie insisted that she see Emmett’s horribly mangled face and body. She then proclaimed, “Let the people see what they did to my boy.”
She invited a local black newspaper photographer to photograph Emmett’s body as Gene Mobley held Mamie in comfort. That icon photo is framed in the movie with the color removed and the black and white frame showed Emmett’s monstrous look, a photograph that ran in Jet magazine and many other African-American publications, but never appeared in the nation’s mainstream publications. Mamie ordered an open-casket viewing. More than a hundred thousand people saw up close the horrors of Emmett’s lifeless body, as they filed past his casket inside the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. Some gasped. Some fainted. All were changed. That is how the first part of the movie concluded.
The second part of the movie involved much more of Mamie’s activism after Emmett’s funeral. She was contacted by the local NAACP chapter and they arranged for Mamie to go down to Mississippi to see where her son was murdered and help bring justice to his killers. Accompanied by her father John Carthan (played by Frankie Faison) she visited Mound Bayou, Mississippi, an all-Black town near Sumner, where she met Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason “TRM” Howard (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) who was the chief physician at the Taborian Hospital and was a Civil Rights Movement leader. She was also driven around and accompanied by Medgar Evers (played by Tosin Cole) who also became a prominent Civil Rights Movement leader. Mamie also participated and testified in the trial of Emmett’s killers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who just laughed at her and lit up cigars after the all-white jury acquitted them of murder several days later.
The movie ends with Mamie realizing that she would not be granted justice for the murder of her son Emmett. Two days after the acquittal, Mamie is seen on a stage before 10,000 people in Harlem, New York. Civil Rights leader A. Phillip Randolph organized a protest and spoke passionately about the injustice of the verdict, but it is Mamie’s moving speech was the highlight of the day. She believed that she and her boy could live a normal life in Chicago before the racial injustice in the segregated south took his life from her. Her powerful speech garnered long periods of applause and stirred up to crowd into action. She went on to tour for racial justice with the NAACP and dedicated her life to the growing Civil Rights movement.
The reason this movie is so powerful is squarely because of the devastatingly surreal performance that actress Danielle Deadwyler gives as Mamie Till-Mobley. Her sorrows are shown in her quivering and flaring nostrils and her pain is seen inside her deep brown weeping eyes. The way Deadwyler portrays the character is nothing less than award-worthy. She puts in a breathless performance, one that will live long inside you, many days after seeing the movie. While the camera, with the direction of Chinonye Chukwu shows us the events of the Emmett Till murder, it is not done through his eyes, but rather through Mamie’s eyes.
The audience is shown what kind of hurt Mamie feels as she is in the funeral home, identifying the body of her deceased son. The audience is meant to experience grief as Mamie testifies in the trial of her son’s murderers, while the white prosecutor accuses her of cashing in on two life insurance policies that she had on Emmett. Or the hatred of the white racist sheriff, who accuses Mamie and the NAACP of plotting to fake the murder to make the people of Mississippi look bad.
It is impossible to leave the theater without understanding that Mamie Till-Mobley is a civil rights hero and we should all be grateful to Danielle Deadwyler for bringing such an amazingly powerful character to life as she is grieving the death of her son. This movie will surely be one of the best films of the year and I sure hope that it gets the recognition that it deserves.
Have you seen TILL movie? Let us know your thoughts!