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CHRISTIAN LIFE IN LONDON | NOVEMBER 2022 EDITION
Reel Review - Till
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Published October 2022



Till

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Biography/History, Drama

Writers: Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chinonye Chukwu

Directed By: Chinonye Chukwu

Release Date: October 14, 2022

Runtime: 130 Minutes

Cast: Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley; Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till; Frankie Faison as John Carthan; Haley Bennett as Carolyn Bryant; Whoopi Goldberg as Alma Carthan; Sean Patrick Thomas as Gene Mobley; John Douglas Thompson as Moses Wright; Kevin Carroll as Rayfield Mooty; Marc Collins as Wheeler Parker; Diallo Thompson as Maurice


Review Courtesy: PluggedIn

Review By: PAUL ASAY



MOVIE REVIEW

Too far. Too far.

Oh, it isn’t technically too far to Mississippi—not in 1955. A train could whisk you down South from Chicago in a day. Emmett—whom everyone called Bo—wouldn’t be gone long, either. He’d spend several days with his cousins near Money, Mississippi, and head straight back home. Those cousins would watch him closely, making sure he didn’t get into trouble. He’d be fine, Preacher promises Mamie Till. They’d keep him safe.

Mamie is nervous all the same. Bo has lived all his life in Chicago—a place where whites and Blacks lived in, if not harmony, at least compatibility. Mamie has a good job, a good home, a good life in the city. Emmett has known nothing else. But Mississippi isn’t Chicago. Jim Crow reigns down there. And people like Mamie and Bo—they go to the back of the bus, drink from different fountains. And if a Black person even dares to hint that they are created equal, well, heaven help that person.

“They have a different set of rules for Negros down there,” she cautions Emmett just one more time. “Are you listening to me?”

Bo says yes. But she worries. The boy’s always been so happy, so carefree. How can he really know what it’s like down there until he sees for himself? And what if he sees too late?

Mamie swallows her worry and sends her boy off, praying every night for his safe return.

A week later, Emmett Till is dead.

His mutilated, bloated body is fished out of Tallahatchie River. Mamie demands Mississippi send the body home to Chicago. And when the body is finally returned, the undertaker cautions Mamie that the sight won’t be pretty. “I need to prepare you.”

She sees the body. She sees her boy. She runs her fingers over his swollen feet, his bloated legs. She sees the face, barely recognizable as a person, much less her son—the side of the head caved in by a bullet, an ear torn, the wounds too many to count.

And in that moment, Mamie realizes the world must see. Bo’s not the only one to die for the “sin” of skin color. For too many years, people have literally gotten away with murder. Now, Mamie will force the world to see. She will force the world to feel her grief.

Too far. This time, they’ve gone too far.

POSITIVE ELEMENTS

Till is based on a true story, of course. The lynching of Emmett Till and subsequent trial became a massive flashpoint in the drive for Civil Rights. Even now the case echoes through history. Just this year, The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law, making lynching a federal hate crime.

The movie’s focus, though, isn’t so much on Emmett as it is on his mother, Mamie. Mamie’s a good mom—one who loves her boy deeply. She sings with him, dances with him and fills him with the best advice she can give. And when Bo leaves on his vacation, Mamie pines for him. The separation would clearly be hard on her even if he was just vacationing on the other side of the city.

When Bo’s body is discovered, Mamie initially grieves with the primal, personal grief perhaps unimaginable in anyone who’s not a mother. And when representatives of the NAACP approach her, telling her that Bo’s death is an “opportunity” to enact real changes in both the South and the nation as a whole, she pushes the notion away. But when Mamie sees the body, she has a change of heart. “You’re not just my boy anymore,” she whispers to the corpse during the open-casket funeral. From then on, Mamie becomes a champion for Civil Rights, declaring in one speech that there must be “freedom for everyone, or freedom fails.”

We see others stand up in the face of racism and intimidation as well—most powerfully in a character simply called Preacher (his real name is Mose Wright). He decides to testify in Emmett Till’s murder trial despite the fact that “no Negro has ever spoken against a white man and lived.” That said, this is mainly Mamie’s story.

SPIRITUAL ELEMENTS

Mamie is a woman of faith. We see her leaning by her bed, praying, presumably, for the safe return of her son. When Emmett disappears, she’s reassured by her friends and neighbors that God, in His mercy, will bring Bo safely back to her.

When that doesn’t happen, Mamie’s faith is swept up in a maelstrom. It doesn’t appear that she ever loses faith, but to reconcile this tragedy with a loving God is (as it would be for anyone) difficult. She collapses before Bo’s coffin when it’s taken from the train.

“Lord have mercy!” She wails. “Lord have mercy! Show me what you want me to do!” In light of that snippet of dialogue, Mamie’s sudden steely resolve when she sees the body—when she decides to hold an open-casket funeral and show the world what Bo’s killers did to him—takes on a spiritual dimension.

And her faith remains strong, apparently, throughout her life. We see her make a speech years later, where she gives “honor to God, the source of my strength.” Preacher is, indeed, a part-time minister. Bo’s funeral takes place in a packed church.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Emmett Till’s lynching was precipitated by an incident that took place between him and Carolyn Bryant in a store owned by Carolyn’s husband.

In the movie, Bo tells Carolyn that she looks like a “movie star”—more in admiration than in a suggestive manner. He shows her a picture of the star he had in mind, which he keeps in his wallet. After he walks out the store, and she follows him onto the store’s front porch, Bo gives her a wolf-whistle. We get the sense that Bo thought it’d be funny. But Bo’s cousins are shocked and hustle Bo away as Carolyn runs for a gun.

During the trial, Carolyn gives a different account (all lies, the movie tells us). She claims that the 14-year-old Bo grabbed her wrist and asked her out on a date—adding that he said he’d been with “white women before.” He then allegedly manhandled her, coming up behind her to grab her arm (again) and waist. Her story goes on, but Mamie leaves the courtroom in disgust: The movie camera follows her out.

We learn early on that Bo’s father died in World War II. She married again (Mamie references her past “husbands”); we don’t hear anything about that second husband other than that fleeting reference, but the historical record tells us they divorced in 1952.

Mamie was engaged to another man, Gene Mobley, at the time of Bo’s disappearance and death. (When Bo leaves town for Mississippi, he jokingly exacts a promise that Gene won’t marry his mother until he returns.) The two kiss, and Mamie suggests they take a vacation together, but that’s all we see or hear of the physical side of their relationship. (We learn that they did indeed marry in 1957, and the marriage lasted until Gene’s 2000 death.)

As Emmett’s case and cause become nationwide news, some from the NAACP worry that Mamie’s series of relationships may hurt their cause. And when she decides to travel to Mississippi for the trial, Mamie tells Gene not to come with her: She’s on trial as much as Emmett’s accused killers. “They [the press] are painting me as some sort of Jezebel!” she says.

VIOLENT CONTENT

Obviously, Till is predicated on an act of unspeakable brutality. But we don’t see the act itself. Rather, we hear it: The camera shows the barn, at a distance, where Bo was taken, and we hear both the blows he suffers and his screams of pain. We do see Bo rousted from his sleep by gun-toting men and pushed out the door without any shoes. They threaten Preacher and his family with a gun, and they push his wife (Aunt Lizzie) out of the way when she pleads for them not to take Bo. (“Don’t take him!” She cries. “I’ll whip him if he done something wrong!”) And, of course, we see the aftermath. Just as Mamie doesn’t flinch as she examines the body of her dead son, neither does the camera. The corpse is, indeed, in horrific shape, and we hear descriptions of the wounds he suffered.

Elsewhere, a woman points a gun at a number of men speeding away. Someone fires a pop gun as Mamie tries to give a statement to the press. (She instinctively ducks, and she’s hustled into a building before she has a chance to speak.) We hear about some other lynchings that happened shortly before Bo’s visit.

CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE

As you might expect, a derogatory corruption of the word Negro is the profanity most often heard here: It’s uttered at least six times, and it hits the listener hard each time. (A sheriff “welcomes” Black trial-goers with that word to the trial, telling most that they’ll have to stand up.)

We also possibly hear one s-word, along with a few uses of “d–n” and one each of “g-dd–n” and “h—.”

DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT

Several characters smoke, and we see Mamie play cards with a couple of friends as they all puff on cigarettes.

OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS

Obviously, racism is an inescapable theme in Till, and it’s not confined to the movie’s prime villains. Mamie deals with more subtle versions even in Chicago. When she looks for a pair of shoes, for instance, a security guard tells her that she can find more downstairs. (Mamie asks the guard whether he offers this bit of advice for all the store’s visitors.) During the trial, even the attorneys prosecuting Bo’s killers ignore her outstretched hand. And while the film certainly doesn’t condone racist behavior, the behavior we see can still be pretty jarring.

Till also reminds us of the fact that Bo’s assailants weren’t just white. Two black men hold the boy down in the back of the truck as they drove away.

CONCLUSION

Three years before Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi, Ralph Ellison published his landmark book Invisible Man. In it, the nameless protagonist says: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Mamie knows that sense of invisibility. And in that corner of Mississippi in 1955, she knows, ironically, that being invisible just might her son’s first line of defense.

“Bo, be small down there,” she tells him.

But when Bo returns to her—bloated in a box—Mamie decides that her boy shouldn’t be small anymore. He couldn’t be invisible. When someone tells her that an open-casket funeral is inappropriate, given Bo’s condition, she pushes the suggestion away.

“He’s in just the right shape,” she says. “The whole world needs to see what they did to my son.”

Moviegoers see what they did, too. And it is, indeed, hard to see. But to say that Till should’ve pulled back—should’ve protected the sensibilities of its audience by not showing the corpse that Mamie was so determined to show—feels disingenuous and inappropriate. To see: That’s the movie’s whole point.

In every other way, though, Till is fairly restrained. Nothing here feels salacious. Anchored by a remarkably complex performance by Danielle Deadwyler, the film brings home the horror of this historical moment without ever pushing beyond what this admittedly difficult story requires.

And the film does something else I found interesting, too: The movie’s killers are barely shown. When they are, they’re often obscured by, say, the butt of a gun, or they have their backs turned to the camera. Indeed, most of the racism we see here is perpetrated by characters that feel almost faceless—as if emphasizing the film’s point that the issue is more ubiquitous, and perhaps more systematic, than we’d like to believe. It turns the tables—showing us Emmett Till while obscuring his murderers.

Till is a powerful, surprisingly restrained film that asks you to see. It forces us to look at the ugliness we sometimes want to shut our eyes to, both in our shared history and often still at work under our own half-shuttered eyes. Whether you should see the movie? That’s a question we leave for you.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: PAUL ASAY Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.