Till Review

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Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, was kidnapped by a mob, tortured and hanged for allegedly offending a white woman in the grocery store on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi. The corpse of Emmett was found in Tallahatchie River three days later with terrible mutilation that left it unrecognizable. In the Clemency film directed by Chinonye Chukwu, one may realize that Till does not depict nor exaggerates this crime. Rather than doing that, he puts Mamie—his mother who is struggling for justice—front and center to re-fabricate the story. This decision is wise since it shows optimism within tragedy without demeaning or trivializing it while giving viewers the bigger picture of civil rights movement (it is also an amazing showcase for Danielle Deadwyler to take up the main role). Demonstrating how less can be more in film-making style as well as writing approach towards historical drama films; Harder They Fall actor shows how these ordinary words can turn into something memorable and touching.

A lot of credits have been given to Moonglows’ doo-wop music hit “Sincerely” being played while mother with son are seen singing happily inside their car at the beginning of this movie. Emmett (a winning Jalyn Hall) is a bright spark, a born entertainer with an eye for a sharp suit and a knack for entertaining the family through singing along to jingles on TV. This showy behavior disturbs Mamie as they get ready to go (“Be small,” she reminds him), cautioning him about his journey south where there exist different rules from those in Chicago or New York. Once we arrive near Mississippi (where hangs an ironic sign reading “A Good Place To Raise A Boy”), Chukwu sets forth an environment which deeply entrenched with racism and social disparities; thus black travelers end up in the back of the train as it crosses over to the Mason-Dixon line, while only Emmett does not understand this. Even though he knew what would follow his mischievous comment and a whistle directed towards Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett)—a white store attendant —as far as he is concerned, it was just for fun. The ensuing lynching is shown through one wide angle shot of a house, consisting solely of indistinguishable sounds of violence and screams. That makes it all the more disturbing.

In many ways, Deadwyler’s portrayal of Mamie speaks louder than any amount of physical disfigurement or fight choreography that could have been used by Chukwu in depicting violence. Whether it’s Mamie’s pained reaction to hearing the news of her son’s death (intensified by a slow, almost imperceptible dolly zoom) or her screams at seeing the wooden crate carrying Emmett’s body, Deadwyler delivers the biggest emotions without ever feeling histrionic. The film turns on an immensely powerful scene when Mamie refuses to leave before she has seen her son’s dead body with just its legs visible from behind a table. When she asks for time alone with her boy though, however, we see that framing changes and Emmett now emerges after being disfigured horribly into view. It is not just the camera but even more importantly Mamie who realigns herself towards what is right for her child.

It is here that the film enters its most interesting part, a great deal of which circles around Mamie’s determination to make others see what she has. That is why apart from ordering an open casket for the funeral (“That smell is my son’s body reeking of racial hatred. Now I want America to bear witness”), she as well lets Black photographers capture scenes that correspond to the kind of going viral in the 50s. This is one area where this film excels, it can seamlessly blend history with current events through close personal-political entanglements.

Chukwu’s direction lacks the flash and thunder but it doesn’t hinder her ability to craft scenes effectively; instead she resorts to good cinematography and an outstanding upfront score by Abel Korzeniowski. In its last act, though mostly depicted on Deadwyler face, it becomes a courtroom drama. The real beauty of all this may be that while some people use volumes of lines, Till silence seems worth more than what they say since when it comes for her turn on stand, her softness coupled with dignity elevates him far above his peers.

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