‘Till’ Has A Great Performance That’s Overshadowed By Tired Cliches, Tropes

I’ve always been of the opinion that a subject matter shouldn’t warrant universal praise. Till has a 98 percent rating of 172 reviews on RottenTomatoes.com. On imdb.com, user reviews average 7.2. The list of awards, recognition and nominations for the movie and its lead actress Daniel Deadwyler are way too much to list.

Yet, I still felt the movie didn’t cover the story the best way it could. There’s a great beginning as we see Mamie Till (Deadwyler) and her son, Emmett (Jaylyn Hill) enjoying good times in Chicago. There’s a racist moment when they are in a department store that is quickly handled. Emmett is enjoying one last night with his family, including his grandmother, Alma Carthan (Whoopi Goldberg in a small but effective role). It’s a reminder of the good times this family had before their whole world would be torn apart.

Emmett is portrayed as your typical 14-year-old. He’s got a carefree attitude despite the problems in Chicago but he’s going to go down to Mississippi to spend some time with his family members down there for the summer before school starts. And we all know what happened. Director Chinonye Chukwu doesn’t show much except for Emmett being kidnapped by gunpoint in the middle of the night from the home of his great uncle “Preacher” Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson) by J.W. Milam (Eric Whitten) and Roy Bryant (Sean Michael Weber) for the way he acted around Roy’s wife, Carolyn (Haley Bennett). We don’t see what they do except hearing a child scream off-screen.

When we do see is that Millam and Bryant also used other black people to help them kidnap Emmett. It says a lot of how the times of Jim Crow and segregation turned people into a “him or me” situation. Carolyn even looks uneasy when she’s asked to identify if it’s Emmett or not. But the problem with this is when we see the incident at the store that led to Emmett’s kidnapping amd murder, it’s handled so poorly. Some people have said that Emmett, also called “Bobo,” had a stutter and would whistle to help him speak and Carolyn mistook that for a “wolf whistle.” Others say that Emmett thought he was complimenting Carolyn by saying she looked like a movie star and showed him a photo that had come with his wallet.

However, Carolyn claimed that Emmett had attacked her and was assisted by another black man. Carolyn is shown saying this on the witness stand. But the way Chukwu handles this incident is sloppy and looks more like a TV movie. It’s mainly because Bennett sneers like every other white person in this movie whenver she’s on screen which isn’t much. Chukwu probably should’ve left the whole grocery store scene out because it’s handled so sloppily where at one point, Carolyn goes to get a gun out of her truck as Emmett and his family and other workers from the cotton fields scramble to get out of there.

Would Carolyn really risk losing the clientele of the whole store since many black people would frequent it? It takes days for Millam and Bryant to track down Emmett which makes me think that nothing happen and Carolyn might have been flattered by Emmett’s compliment. But word got back to her husband and she had to lie, which was the case during the Rosewood, Fla. massacre. I wouldn’t doubt that she was an abused woman but that doesn’t excuse her actions. Even though she’s still in her late 80s and dying of cancer, that doesn’t excuse what she did in her youth especially since she’s admitted to lying on the witness stand. Since there have been numerous reports on what really happened at the store, we will probably never know.

After Emmett’s murder, the main focus is on Mamie as she goes through the grieving process. The story gains national attention where at first Emmett is believed to be just kidnapped and missing. Then his body is found in the Tallahatchie River. It’s here where Deadwyler shines despite Chukwu’s bothersome direction. When Emmett’s body arrives by train, photographers gather around it before a shocked Mamie can get close to it. A scene in which she breaks down hysterically should’ve been cut because it ruins the effectiveness of the next scene at the funeral home where she gets a look at Emmett’s body.

With her fiance, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas in a role where he’s given nothing to do but react), they are horrified. Then, Mamie asks them to leave so she can be alone. And as we watch her break down and cry, you can see the pain and hurt that any mother would feel. Then, it turns to anger. Deadwyler’s acting is wonderful as she fights to compose herself through pain and grief to tell Gene to go get a suit to bury Emmett in despite the objection of him and the funeral director.

In a move that people, both white and black, were critical of, Emmett’s mutilated and mangled body was on full display in an open casket. Mamie wanted the world to see. If they are going to photograph a casket, then they can see what’s underneath. These are the movie’s strong points. But then Chukwu moves to the trial phase which is handled so poorly, that it’s almost as bad as the actual trial itself.

Yes, the real-life Sheriff Clarence Strider (Brendan Patrick Connor) was a sweaty fat-ass pig-fucker of a racist bastard. And yes, there probably were a lot of Klan members in the jury as well as the audience, but Chukwu makes everyone white in this movie as either a racist or unsympathetic. I’m sure the Judge Curtis Swango (Tim Ware) may have made some questionable decisions, but a line of his asking for a Coke is handled in a smug way. Even the prosecutor in the case isn’t even given some credit. This isn’t a white savior movie and thank God for that, but still I felt Chukwu had a bone to pick. An earlier scene of Emmett and his family having to switch train cars once they pass state lines is handled so awfully, Chukwu obviously has an agenda that even Spike Lee would consider extreme. All the white people on the passenger train leer and sneer at them as they walk by.

Sometimes when you try not to be racist, you come off as even more racist. Chukwu is credited as one of the writers but she’s given an “and” while the other two writers are listed as “Michael Riely & Keith Beauchamp.” My guess is Chukwu took the script from them and rewrote it but the Writers Guild awarded all with writing credits. Not only does the movie have an “anti-white” agenda but also all men are portrayed as incompetent. Like I said, Thomas’ role is mostly reaction. There’s a scene in which Mamie stands up to a local NAACP chapter president which is nice as it looks like he’s trying to exploit Emmett’s death, but a scene in which he questions what happened to Emmett’s biological father seems extraneous and uneasy.

Did a reporter really have the nerve to ask “What’s that smell?” outside the funeral home? Did a young white boy really fire a cap gun outside the courthouse to frighten Mamie? Was she and her father, John Carthan (Frankie Faison), really forcibly frisked before entering the courtroom? Beauchamp spent 27 researching information on Emmett’s death and the trial. There’s just some things that feel like they were done for dramatic effect and it feels like it’s been done before.

During one scene Mamie questions why Moses didn’t stand up to Willam and Bryant because he had a shotgun. And Moses gives a melodramatic response that it would’ve gotten his whole family killed. He’s right. It probably would’ve. Moses testifies at court and Chukwu does the right thing by just focusing on Thompson as he’s sweating and trying to keep his composure.

Another scene where Mamie testifies and doesn’t buck to the defense’s questions is some great acting by Deadwyler and the Oscars should be ashamed for not nominating her over Cate Blanchett’s vanity project Tar. But I think the issue with Till is how the movie’s is structured. With the main focus on Emmett’s murder and aftermath, we don’t see much of Mamie afterwards as she works with others to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed. Many point to Emmett’s death as the moment in which Americans all over the country and people all over the world saw the real horrors of Jim Crow and segregation in America.

Both Willam and Bryant were acquitted and then told Look magazine what they did because the Double Jeopardy law prohibited they cold be retried. However, there were efforts that took from 1955 to 2022 to make lynching a federal crime. It’s called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. And If a policy had been in place, Willam and Bryant could’ve been tried at the federal level. At two hours and ten minutes with credits, there’s more to this story that could’ve been told.

Deadwyler, Goldberg and Hall give great performances, but many other characters seem to fade into the background. Tosin Cole appears as Medgar Evers who mainly does nothing but sit next to Mamie during court proceedings and to have an exchange with her in private that foreshadows his assassination in 1963. But Chukwu presents an uneven and mediocre movie that never rises above the TV movie feel.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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