Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 16, 2023)
In 1955, Black 14-year-old Emmett Till got tortured and killed in Mississippi because he “offended” a white woman. That outrageous event became a major catalyst of the burgeoning civil rights crusade in the US and becomes the focus of 2022’s Till.
Extraverted Emmett “Bo” Till (Jalyn Hall) lives in Chicago with his single mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler). He heads to Mississippi to visit his cousins, but she fears that Bo’s oversized personality will get him in trouble with the more racist culture of that area.
Mamie proves correct when Bo’s murder occurs. This prompts her to embark on a crusade to ensure that her son didn’t die in vain.
Going into Till, one might expect it to be a more formal tale of Bo’s life and premature death, with a strong view of the tragic events and related topics. Instead, the film finds Bo abducted by his eventual killers prior to the 30-minute mark and found dead within the following 10 minutes.
Till finds Bo’s famous open casket funeral about halfway into the movie. Whereas a more traditional structure would end there, obvious Till still comes with plenty of room to go.
Initially I thought this might feel like a mistake. I thought that Till should allow the audience more time with Bo to get to know him better and feel more distraught at his lynching.
And I still feel that way to a degree. We get a snapshot of Bo before the movie loses him, but we don’t get to know him in depth.
That said, I think we probably learn enough to allow his death to leave a mark. Granted, the brutal nature of his murder and the notoriety of the crime already finds us inclined to lean that way, but I don’t feel sure that Till would work better if it spent more time with its title character.
This seems especially true because so many of us already know the basic story. As mentioned, Bo’s murder became a touch point in the Civil Rights movement, so it makes sense for the movie to focus on less well-known aspects of the history.
In this vein, the focus on Mamie gives the film a good twist. While most know of her controversial decision to place Bo in an open casket, we don’t maintain much awareness of anything beyond that, so the flick’s choice to give us a better awareness of her actions.
And Till does offer an enlightening take on this topic. Nothing revelatory occurs, but we find ourselves on the journey with Mamie.
As she states at one point, Mamie didn’t really concern herself with rampant racial abuses in the US until they hit home, and that offers a common course of action. Most of us don’t focus on particular domains when they don’t directly affect us.
The fact we see how Mamie transforms gives the tale impact, mainly because we can relate. Till offers a good depiction of this path and allows Mamie to evolve in a natural manner.
Deadwyler’s performance adds clout to the movie as well. She resists the urge to indulge in cheap theatrics, so she provides the necessary emotion without tiresome overacting.
Till doesn’t come with a happy ending – it can’t. Even though we see that Bo’s death and Mamie’s willingness to use this tragedy as a call to arms adds fire to the Civil Rights movement, we still find ourselves with a life snuffed out before it really began.
The epilogue notes that the criminals went unpunished. Indeed, the killers profited from their heinous actions, as they got paid $4000 to confess their deeds to a magazine – and “double jeopardy” laws meant they couldn’t undergo a trial for the same crime twice.
Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) – the white woman whose fabricated accusations led to Bo’s death – underwent potential criminal prosecution in the 21st century. However, perhaps as an indication of how little really has changed over the last 70 years, Bryant never faced prosecution for her role – and since she died in late April 2023, obviously she never will.
Despite the inherently depressing – and maddening – postscript to Till, it still tells an important story. The movie gives us a glimpse of horrors from the still-recent past and a reminder that the battle still continues.