I will admit I was not aware of the case of Emmett Till, and the fight for justice by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Biographical films have been very hit-or-miss with me since they can appear very linear and stuck to the facts. King Richard came to mind as a prime example of still telling me the facts but showing the human emotions. I needed to care about these depictions of real people. Till also provided these intimate scenes from the moment her world fell apart, right up to the moments of Mamie beginning to fight for justice.
The story took place primarily in 1955’s Chicago and Mississippi. Mamie was a widowed mother of Emmett (she calls him “Bo” as a nickname) after her husband was killed during World War II. The story began showing the endearing bond of Mamie and her charmingly optimistic son, as she prepared for her son’s first departure to her relatives’ hometown of Money, Mississippi. It was his first trip alone as a young, fourteen-year-old boy—displaying his innocence to racism.
Emmett’s trip to Money was smooth on the train and reuniting with his relatives in the town. However, when they all go out to a local shop owned by a white woman named Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), things go awry for Emmett when he whistled at Carolyn. By the evening, Emmett was dragged out of his relatives’ home and lynched by white supremacists. When the news broke to Mamie, she was terrifyingly shaken, and then her fight for justice began.
While this was a dramatic recount of the tragedy that took place, it shook me to my core. Till showed me brutality in a new light and how the brutality could be felt from different perspectives or not even visible at all. Emmett’s inhumane beating and bludgeoning was only heard from another young kid’s perspective, and that was all. However, I did not need to see the act visually to understand the brutality taking place inside that shed.
“Till showed me brutality in a new light and how the brutality could be felt from different perspectives or not even visible at all.”
The most disturbing scene of the film was seeing the aftermath of the beaten and battered fourteen-year-old laid sprawled across the funeral embalmer’s table, naked, and exposed for his mother and stepfather to see. I thought the camera work building up to the reveal of all the different injuries inflicted on Emmett had more impact than showing a full body shot for a few seconds. No, the director, Chinonye Chukwu made sure to make audiences sit in the grief and witness every unfortunate result of pure racism.
The use of close-ups was abundant in this film. Danielle Deadwyler’s (The Harder They Fall, Watchmen) performance was superb, offering one of the most genuine, tearful breakdowns I had ever seen. It felt raw and heartbreaking every time Mamie broke into tears with snot dripping down her melancholy face. The actor, nor the real-life person, cared if she looked horrendous because the grief and trauma was infinitely worse than that. The whole film was based around the perspective of Mamie—only parts of the beginning first act shifted to Emmett’s perspective as others were around him.
The great Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act, M.O.D.O.K.) was also in this film, but was not as her typical eccentric, front-and-center character. She played Mamie’s mother, who was a loving grandmother to Emmett. She was also struck with a lot of sadness when they found out Emmett was murdered, and her own little soliloquy moment resonated with how anyone would feel when they lose someone so dear to them.
“Till made sure to provide raw emotions and show how a mother would not stop to do anything for her child.”
This film was made at a momentous time as the national anti-lynching law in the U.S. was just passed in March 2022. It has been only 70 years since the tragic events of what happened to Emmett Till. Till made sure to provide raw emotions and show how a mother would not stop to do anything for her child. I found this similarity in Kristen Stewart’s performance in Spencer, but even more amplified as Mamie only had one child who was taken from her.
Also, similar to Spencer, I found the score added to the haunting effect of the tragedy as well. But the film was also smart with moments of pure silence, allowing the actors and the audience to sit in the sad moment. It was also a great way to explain how Mamie had to process the information given to her and be pensive about her next decisions.
I believed it was a heavy, emotional biographical retelling of the true events, and each beat was meaningful with its 130-minute runtime. Almost every family member related to the Till family had an impactful moment to express their sorrow and frustration over Emmett’s murder—with or without dialogue.
I could not begin to understand the pain Mamie felt hearing about the lynching on her son and having to see his dead body afterwards. And I could not believe it took 70 years to get a law to prevent this from happening to another child today. It was a true illustration of how the battle against racism and equal human rights had been prevalent in the close past and continues to this day.