Till – London Film Festival 2022 – Film Review
Black trauma is a term that evokes a myriad of opinions as well as emotions but it is a central theme within Chinonye Chukwu‘s latest film Till. Till serves as that spotlight of the true story of a mother’s 50 plus year battle to seek justice for the lynching of her teenage son, Emmett Louis Till in 1950s Mississippi. Till is a compelling, unflinching, poignant but insightful account of such events and the aftermath sensitively depicted from the viewpoint of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. It is both heart-rending and powerful with a tour de force performance from Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie.
Within a modern-day lens, it remains shocking discovering such tales of injustice and yet the story of Emmett Till was not widely known during its occurrence. The lynching of Emmett was not a subject taught within history for many schools in the US despite such a shocking attack, against a young boy aged 14, for being accused of speaking to a Caucasian woman. It is a tale that is likely to enrage but Chukwu skilfully interweaves a delicate balance between the pain and anguish that such violence evokes and the sentiments of familial joy. Till envelopes the audience within a warm blanket as an introduction to Emmett and Mamie’s relationship whilst safely ensconced in Chicago. The cinematography assists in depicting their joy with bright light shone as Mamie and Emmett sing and dance with the love between them radiating on the screen. The chemistry between Deadwyler and an exuberant, charismatic Jalyn Hall as Emmett exudes delight. Chukwu builds up this positive, close mother-son relationship for viewers to witness and easily appreciate Mamie’s fears for Emmett to travel to the south and be away from her for two weeks, where different rules applied for black people.
Mamie’s protective nature may initially seem overzealous to the casual observer but the forewarning to Emmett to remain polite and submissive when addressing the Caucasian people encountered, within the southern states, will resonate with many with its sense of dread, as amplified by the evocative score. Such code switching and additional caution is still a reality for many black people to date. Situations may arise in which being black requires further consideration in case everyday interactions are perceived as aggressive and result in disproportionate amounts of violence being levelled. Chukwu gently educates about this reality and the constant internal struggles. Till powerfully depicts this state of racial unrest with minimal exposition but sets the tone effectively. There is television footage outlining the historical position and overflowing of racial hatred following the 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka case which overturned an 1896 case permitting racially segregated public facilities. As such, Chukwu impressively delivers a nuanced film without lingering on the violence and thus exacerbating black trauma and pain.
Instead, Till’s focus, with a female lens, outlines the need for humanity, compassion and an overhaul of unjust measures by concentrating on Mamie’s arc. Till will therefore impact emotionally without the need for constant gratuitous imagery. However, imagery is still important as a central tenet of the film whether by exploration of Mamie’s fashionable, colourful outfits or by virtue of Mamie’s decision for the full impact of Emmett’s murder to be publicised in newspapers and magazines, which was unprecedented.
Till thus emphasises Mamie’s role as a trailblazer and signals the change occurring during such era. There is that subtle shift from focusing on the intimate world of a family, with long, silent takes within their inner sanctum, who played games together and prayed privately. The film subsequently portrays the taking of photography on a macro level and the impact the Till family’s grief had on a nation, who could no longer remain neutral as a result. Such pivotal changes in Chukwu’s direction, also reflect that change in Mamie from having an insular outlook and not wishing to raise her head above the parapet, having been accustomed to being the ‘only one in the room’ whilst working for the Air Force. It is a relatable sentiment when facing micro aggressions within present day workplaces. Deadwyler’s heartbreaking performance, in such scenarios, evokes that emotion and shows the broader consideration for civil rights. Her pain will be your pain as Till ramps up the sense of dread to a crescendo and Deadwyler rises to the task with a haunting portrayal.
It is at this moment that a comparison can be made to Chukwu’s debut film Clemency. In Clemency there is a female prison warden dealing with an external prison but fails to confront the internal prison she faces. Within Till, Mamie must contend with an internal prison built on grief but is forced to confront the external prison faced by many black communities that requires the dismantling of several legislature and political systems. Both women in the films have a tremendous emotional journey to embark on as a continuous theme within Chukwu’s films to date.
Till’s beauty lies in that overspilling of raw, natural emotion in the face of adversity. The film emphasises the power of community and subtly illustrates tenets of black communities’ resilience. Mamie projects that inner strength whilst grieving for Emmett. The grief may be private or public and Chukwu allows Deadwyler to convey the emotion fully with close ups and complementary lighting of her complexion to reveal the full impact on a mother. Chukwu’s gaze is never exploitative but lingers slowly with long takes and stays with the emotion. When Mamie closes the doors to the world, and that external outpouring of grief, Chukwu devastatingly shows that the grief continues, behind closed doors, and is omnipresent and so is her camera.
Chukwu and Deadwyler’s impressive collaboration gives a voice to Mamie’s plight and her remarkable tenacity in the fight for civil rights as a NAACP activist. There are many miscarriages of justice still occurring and as such Till is an important tool within the social conscious movement. Its relevancy will be acutely felt as lynching was only made a hate crime in the US with the March 2022 passing of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act 2022. This is precisely one of those reasons that powerful storytelling such as Chukwu’s must see Till will always be needed to provide a voice to the under-represented and to serve as that legacy. It will therefore be exciting to discover which new projects will be on Chukwu’s horizon as a fascinating director to watch.