It’s difficult when discussing a film based on a tragic event in recent history to separate the craft of the film from the weight of the subject matter. There are few tragedies as gut-wrenching as the case of Emmett Till, a young African American boy who was brutally lynched in 1950s Mississippi. The facts of this case are harrowing, and the decision by the boy’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to hold an open casket funeral for her son made this one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement.
This story provides the basis for Till, the latest drama from Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu. The film sets the scene by following 14-year-old Emmett (Jalyn Hall) as he spends the summer in Mississippi with his cousins. When some harmless banter with a white shop clerk (Hayley Bennett) escalates, Emmett is kidnapped and brutally lynched, launching a campaign from his mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) to seek justice for her son and advance the civil rights movement.
Written by Chukwu along with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, the film handles its subject matter with a grace and sensitivity, as well as an anger towards the vile injustice at its centre. However, it feels like the film hits every beat that you expect it to and, dramatically, none of it ever surprises. Though it’s a handsomely crafted picture, every aspect of it feels familiar and predictable, from the hazy cinematography and soaring strings on the soundtrack, to the righteous anger in Deadwyler’s performance.
The young actor who stood out in 2021’s The Harder They Fall has garnered awards attention for her turn here but, as written and performed, Mamie comes across as one-dimensional. There’s a lot of rage and grief, but the performance feels very calculated and actorly, lacking that real emotional edge that Deadwyler is straining for. Considering Mamie is such an important figure who made brave decisions in the face of incredible pain, it’s disappointing that the film didn’t fully explore her impact on the civil rights movement.
Though competently made and well-intentioned, Till ultimately succumbs to the weight of the material. As respectful as it is rigid, its devotion to ticking off every story beat means the film feels more staid than it does cinematic.