Till is a 2022 new release directed by Chinonye Chukwu about the lynching of a Black boy and his mother’s fight to get justice for his murder. In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till (Jayln Hall) left his home in Chicago and traveled south to spend some time with family in Mississippi. Raised by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), to enjoy his childhood he doesn’t live with the fear of facing threats in the world due to his race. A chance encounter and perceived breach of social protocols lead to the boy being brutally murdered. During her grief, Mamie uses her son’s murder to bring attention to the injustice committed against him and also other Black people in the Jim Crow South.
The film starts with a glimpse into Till’s life as a boy in Chicago which is different. Often when there’s a discussion about Till it focuses on his murder and the aftermath. Unfortunately, this tends to occur with murder victims who were not well-known before their death. You usually don’t get much insight into him as a boy as far as what his life was like before his murder. We see his mother sit him down and warn him about what to expect down in Mississippi. Being from Chicago he’s unaware of their social expectations.
His mother is very apprehensive about him going to Mississippi. Maybe it was a matter of this being her only child and them never having been apart for any real length of time. But it could have also been a premonition. She pushes those feelings aside thinking that she has to start letting go and giving him more freedom to explore and be out in the world. But just imagine that moment. Saying goodbye to your child, your only child, with some apprehension, especially if there is the potential for danger in the place he’s headed. To hug him, see him take off, and that’s the last time you see him alive. It’s a bittersweet moment because being in the future, we know what’s to come.
Imagine riding the train and when it reaches a point you have to get up and move because of your race. As a parent, how do you explain that to your child? Under different circumstances, I would have also encouraged a child to travel and experience a new environment. A kid from the city spending time in the country or vice versa is good. Picking cotton not so much but gaining a better understanding of the world and how other people live is good for kids, actually even adults.
And then came the unfortunate moment of Emmett crossing paths with Carolyn Bryant in the store. I took issue with how the scene is presented. Emmett was said to have a photo of a White woman (possibly some movie star) in his wallet and showed it off to his cousins as supposedly being his girlfriend back in Chicago. It’s a petty far-fetched lie that I could see a teenage boy telling. But it’s presented here as that he showed Bryant the photo, commented on her appearance, and wolf-whistled at her as he was leaving. This implies that Emmett was being forward or inappropriately flirtatious and Bryant took offense.
But in books and other things I’ve seen the incident was explained as Emmett whistled. Some reasoned that this might not have been an intentional whistle to be flirtatious but rather a result of his lisp. Either way, given that Carolyn Bryant would later admit to lying it seems that what if anything took place, did not warrant what happened to Till. The way it’s presented can be argued as victim blaming. And without knowing more about the situation, viewers might regard this as fact and have an inaccurate perception of what took place.
Even if he did whistle at her. I’m not saying that catcalling is acceptable but I wouldn’t take something like that seriously from a child. He’s an immature boy and that should be considered an opportunity to educate and correct him. Depending on your comfort level, you as an adult should tell him that’s not ok or tell his parents/guardians and let them handle it. But instead of this being a moment to correct him she escalates the situation by immediately going to get a gun out of her car.
The idea of a teenage boy doing something foolish and having it result in his torture and murder is too much. It goes back to the idea of Black boys and Black girls not being seen as children. Something that would be dismissed as childish or immature on the part of any other child is here seen as a major transgression and worthy of threatening death.
I think we’ve all had close brushes with trouble as a kid (though hopefully not at gunpoint) and were glad to take our lumps or losses if it meant our parents didn’t find out. And as kids sometimes do, Emmett and his cousins hid what took place from the adults hoping nothing else would come from the situation. As time goes by they begin to think that everything is ok.
Emmett and his cousins spend some time hanging out in town and they return to find Uncle Moses and Aunt Elizabeth sitting, holding hands, and listening to the radio. There’s a broadcast about some of the racially motivated incidents that have taken place and they’re uneasy. This has led to them staying up until the kids make it back to ensure everyone is safe.v
We see the aunt and uncle sitting on the couch and there’s the sound of a car pulling up outside. When I heard that, I thought this was the start of the drama. But it turns out that it was just the kids returning and shortly after, they head to bed.
The uncle actually calls Emmett (or Bobo as they called him) back into the room. I thought he was going to say something to Emmett about what happened at the store. But instead, he just reminds him that they have plans to get up early the next morning to mail a letter to his mother. And with that, the kids consider it a close call. These little moments just ratchet up the tension.
Meanwhile, Mamie is back in Chicago playing a card game at home with some friends but still feels uneasy. She later says her prayers before bed but that looming feeling remains. But now everyone is at home asleep safe and sound in Chicago and Mississippi which allows you to let down your guard. And that’s when it happens.
In the middle of the night, there’s suddenly noise, light, and movement outside the house in Mississippi. Uncle Moses gets up and goes to the door not knowing what’s going on. The kids eventually wake up as well with Emmett seemingly being the last to wake. His cousin calls out to him multiple times before he fully wakes up and by that time the men are in the house having pushed past Uncle Moses.
Imagine that you are in your home asleep in bed, men barge in to grab one of your family members, and there is nothing you can do about it because they could just as easily kill everyone. You witness what’s going on but are powerless to stop it. How might make you feel? A seemingly insignificant incident at a store to which someone takes great offense simply because they can and now your life and that of your family hangs in the balance. And even when they’re gone, you might as well forget about calling the police.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy. Keyword: “boy”. And grown men came and grabbed him out of his bed. A boy. I can’t even imagine how he might have felt in that moment of terror. And then the feeling of guilt and helplessness likely experienced by his uncle, aunt, and cousins as they’re unable to do anything at that moment to stop what’s taking place. The feeling in that moment is unimaginable and I’m sure is something that they carried for the rest of their lives. And then have to make that phone call to inform his mother.
I know that with films like this it’s difficult to please everyone. Some people don’t like movies about slavery or any other negative events from Black history being made. The history of Black people in America and from across the diaspora contains violent events and brutality toward Black individuals. Sometimes the history of Black people is sanitized to the point of causing these incidents to lose context. But in other instances, it can feel like a filmmaker or storyteller is relishing their telling of violence being done to Black people.
Here I appreciated Chukwu’s decision to imply the torture of Emmett rather than showing it on screen. First, because the actor playing Emmett is a boy and while a professional, I don’t think child actors should have to endure scenes of that nature. Secondly, the aftermath of Emmett’s torture was shown in what became a historic photograph. I think the story of how those images came about does him and his mother’s legacy a greater service than depicting how he sustained those injuries. It would be difficult and almost impossible to show him being beaten, shot, otherwise tortured, and then dumped in the river without having it veer into trauma porn.
Through family connections, Mamie gets in touch with the NAACP. Having been kidnapped but not having his body immediately appear, Emmett is at first considered missing. So the initial push is to get attention for his case. Unfortunately, this means dealing with the media and the NAACP’s attempts to prepare Mamie for what’s ahead.
This is a woman whose child is missing but optics are just as important as the facts if they intend to get the press to care. And thus begins an offputting but understandable experience of Mamie being questioned about her personal and romantic life. The questions are invasive and seem to have an agenda as the intent is to probe and bring to the fore anything that might be spun negatively. To get out in front of these potential distractions to avoid them being found and exploited by some random reporter.
Often when the stories of notable people and events are told, they take on historic proportions. This outsized portrayal can strip the stories of their humanity. But this telling of the story of Emmett Till feels more human because it’s told through the experience of his mother. We see and experience the occurrence of these events primarily through her eyes but also through other family members. As much as possible, it asks us to not just sympathize with the characters but to go further and empathize with them. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine this happening to your son, stepson, grandson, cousin, nephew, etc.
It was heartbreaking to see Mamie collapse upon learning that Emmett had been found and was no longer missing but was now confirmed as dead. And then to add insult to injury that the authorities in Mississippi are seemingly trying to just bury him and be done with the situation. You put your only lively and vivacious child on a train to allow him some freedom to independently see and experience a bit of the world. And he comes back to you on a train. But in a box. How do you prepare for something like that? How do you endure something like that?
Mamie and her fiance, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Harris), are at the funeral home waiting to view Emmett’s body. When the scene opens, the camera is some distance away and the lower half of the frame is taken up with the lower portion of the examination table and the room. The men are covering their noses with handkerchiefs and the mortician warns Mamie and Gene about what they’re going to see. But it’s also a warning for the audience.
We can assume that Emmett’s body is laying on the table covered by a sheet but it’s blocked from view by objects in the foreground. The camera begins to move up as the mortician pulls back the sheet until it reveals his decomposed and disfigured body. I knew what to expect but still felt caught off guard. And Mamie’s time alone with her son was heartbreaking, it brought tears to my eyes.
Usually when a person dies, if there’s trauma, especially visible trauma to the face or head the mortician will try as best as possible to hide the damage. But with injuries beyond a certain point, most families will opt for a closed-casket funeral. Under normal circumstances, Emmett’s face and body would not have been displayed via photos or an open casket. But given the nature of his murder, his mother opted to show the world what racial hatred had done to her son.
It’s fitting that before the funeral she pinned photos of him in life to the lid of the casket. Those lively pictures of a living boy were in direct contrast to the disfigured and mangled body laying in the casket. It showed that this is what was done to him. This was the aftermath of the acts of violence done to his body.
This wasn’t some elderly person that died after having lived a long and full life. Or even just an adult. It would have been sad enough if he had become ill and it caused him to die at the age of 14 years old. But instead, he was murdered. He didn’t die from an illness. He didn’t die from old age, natural causes, or even an accident. This was a purposeful and vengeful murder.
Having just buried her son and now shifting focus to trying to get justice for his murder Mamie was still dealing with nonsense. As the NAACP suggested would happen, attempts were being made in the court of public opinion to question her morals. And then you also have people who are incredibly vile mailing this woman letters and clippings celebrating the death of her child and otherwise being inappropriate about the situation.
Something important to note is that throughout history in cases of crimes being committed against Black people you would often end up with an all-White jury. This is part of why there was such an effort to curtail Black voting rights. This was both in the form of blocking citizens from registering to vote and preventing them from casting ballots.
You have the political aspect. In some counties in the South where Black people were the majority, they could have a tremendous impact on the political structure. They’d be able to vote out or against candidates that weren’t operating in their best interest.
In many places, jurors are selected from voter registration records. Making it difficult or pretty much impossible for Black people to register to vote was also a way of keeping Black people off of juries. In cases with Black victims or suspects, it could be a game-changer to have at least one or two Black people on the jury. This was especially true in a case like Emmett Till’s where race was a major factor in the case.
For her safety, arrangements are made for Mamie to stay in the all-Black town of Mound Bayou. There she would be under the protection and care of Myrlie and Medgar Evers. Mamie and her supporters arrive at the courthouse where Emmett’s alleged murderers are set to stand trial. The plan was for Mamie to answer questions in front of the court during an impromptu press conference. But the environment is tense and feels as though there might be violence. It’s quickly broken up as loud popping sounds from children who are playing with what appears to be a toy gun or toy of some kind sounds like gunfire.
They enter the courthouse and are frisked quite roughly. You would think that this woman whose son has been murdered would be granted a bit of grace. Not to say that you wouldn’t check to make sure she isn’t carrying a weapon. But that you would be a bit more gentle and courteous. And to add to it, the sheriff in addition to manhandling Mamie is also throwing around the “n-word”.
Mamie and her supporters are allotted 18 seats and their other folks have to stand in the back. Meanwhile, the supporters of the accused are free to pack the rest of the seats in the courtroom. You end up with this small contingent of supporters for Emmett and Mamie split between the front and rear of the courtroom. And when you look around the rest of the courtroom, everybody else is White and seemingly supporting the murderers.
Wanting to see the places where her son spent his last days, Mamie asks to be taken to Money, Mississippi. She visits the store where all of this started and is informed that it’s been closed for a while. The store’s clientele was predominantly local Black residents and they stopped shopping at the store. I don’t know if that’s factual but if it is, serves the Bryants right.
She also visits the uncle and cousins that Emmett had been visiting in Mississippi. The boys have done nothing wrong but feel guilty and apologize for what happened. While in the house, Mamie notices a shotgun hanging from the wall and goes to speak with Uncle Moses. The two have a pretty honest conversation about this specific situation and what it’s like for Black people living in the area.
Mamie is initially upset that Uncle Moses had a shotgun and didn’t use it to defend Emmett. But as Uncle Moses explains he has one shotgun but two men came to the door and entered the house. We as the audience see that there were at least another three to four men in the truck when they make Emmett get in. Uncle Moses was one man with a shotgun in a house with his three sons and wife. Even if he somehow managed to kill the two men who entered the house, what was he supposed to do about the others in the truck?
And the reality is that he wouldn’t have had to contend with just the men who came to the house that night. It was those two men, the others in the truck, and the rest of the system of White supremacy. If he killed all of the men present, he would still have to deal with possibly every and any White man in town. And given the Black guys in the truck that night, possibly some of the Black locals too. It would be the sheriff, judge, and the rest of the entire system against him. Not just two individuals.
When it came down to it, he had to make a difficult choice at that moment. Sacrifice all of their lives to save Emmett or allow the men to take him and maybe save the rest of the people in the house. And not just them. Because if he’d killed those two men, the White people in town who supported their actions would have likely begun hunting down and killing any Black people they came across.
His act of self-defense would have been seen as a great transgression. As a rebellion of sorts, efforts would have been made to put it down. It wasn’t just him. It wasn’t just his family, but it was every other Black person in town and the nearby vicinity. And with that, he let them take Emmett. I understood his rationale and didn’t blame him for it. It’s a tough situation to be in and a heartbreaking decision to make. Emmett lost his life and Mamie lost her child but that sacrifice saved many others. Still rough to do and live with.
Look at the minor transgression that Emmett was considered to have committed and what happened to him. These people live in this community and know what can happen to them for minor issues. They can imagine what might happen in retaliation for their killing a White person even in self-defense. Yet, some of them take a stand by boycotting the Bryants’ store, offering silent support to Mamie, or braving danger to testify.
There’s a fairly sad but touching and powerful scene between Mamie and Myrlie. These are two mothers who care for their children and worry about them knowing what they’ll have to deal with in society. They fear the dangers that are out there in the world for them. They empathize with each other. And again there’s this thing of knowing that Myrlie would find herself having to also deal with a harrowing experience in the coming years.
As expected the court case is just absolute nonsense. Not the acting or depiction but rather the way these people just got up on the stand and lied whenever their mouths were moving. When the sheriff who is supposed to uphold law and order is called he disputes the body being that of Emmett Till. He then goes on to suggest that this is all a conspiracy cooked up to make the South look bad. Here you have an agent of the local government actively working to defend White supremacy and terrorism.
Mamie gets on the stand and shares some insights into the son that she loved and raised. It helps to further humanize him and her as well, kind of taking them off of this historic pedestal and presenting them as normal human beings who were forced into the spotlight. She explains the warnings and directions that she’d given Emmett as he prepared to go down to Mississippi. But recognized that having been raised in a different environment free from that kind of worry, he didn’t take her warning seriously. Deadwyler is great throughout Till but this is one of the scenes in which she truly shines.
You then have Carolyn Bryant testifying, if you want to call it that. I have nothing good to say about this woman and her lies. (Nothing against the actress, she does a good job with the role.) It’s like her mouth is moving and there is nothing but lies coming out. And as her testimony progresses her claims just become increasingly outrageous.
She begins setting the stage as it was after dark but this occurred in broad daylight. Emmett was a 14-year-old boy but she describes him as a man. The reality of the situation is that he might have whistled at her, whether intentionally or not is unclear. And he might have spoken to her beyond what was necessary. It sounds like at most he attempted to make small talk but wasn’t rude or inappropriate. In Till, he took candy out of a jar and placed the money on the counter.
In her version of events, Emmett all but raped her in the store. He said vulgar things to her. Touched and then grabbed her hand while giving her the money. And then seemingly chased her around the store and attempted to physically overpower her.
I was annoyed listening to this so-called testimony and so was Mamie as she gets up and decides to just leave. The entire court case is a farce. It’s a show being put on to shut people up who might otherwise complain about the injustice of the situation. Given all the lying taking place and the local all-White all-male jury, she knows that there will be no justice here. Mamie decides to leave town and unsurprisingly, the jury returns a verdict of not guilty.
It was powerful though that as she prepares to leave town, the Black people they passed nodded in acknowledgment. It’s a sort of shared camaraderie that they have. She might not have won the case in court but the community knows what’s what. To see her then use this experience to help people relate to what’s happening in the South and all that came from that is inspirational.
There’s a line where she explains that previously when she’d hear about what Black people were experiencing in the South, she would shrug her shoulders and regard it as their problem. But now having experienced it herself she recognizes that such injustices have to be everyone’s problem.
Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t frequently appear in films but whenever she does, I’m usually impressed by her performance and that’s no different here. The performances by the entire cast are solid. Danielle Deadwyler, the actress playing Mamie is amazing. She looked familiar to me but I couldn’t think of any other film or tv show where I might have seen her. Either way, I think she could be a contender come award season. And I would look forward to seeing her in future film and tv roles.
How To Watch
In theaters now.
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