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'Till' Review

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October 22, 2022
Hunter Friesen
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Till played at the 2022 Twin Cities Film Fest. United Artists Releasing will release the film in theaters on October 28.

One of the most prominent things that creeps through the first act of Till is the sense of impending doom. We open on Mamie and Emmett Till shopping in a department store in 1955 Chicago. They’re buying the necessary things so that Emmett can visit his distant family down in Mississippi. He’s pleading with his mom to buy him a nice wallet to show off to his cousins, who’ve never had much contact with the big city, something that Emmett exemplifies with his effortless charm and nice clothes. 

At face value, these scenes are full of the usual joy and innocence that would come with any scene where a parent lets their child spread their wings and fly out into the world. But co-writer/director Chinonye Chukwu knows that context is key, as history tells us that Emmett would be kidnapped and lynched by two white men only one week into his visit to Mississippi. So while everything is light and joyful on the surface, there’s a biting feeling deep inside preparing you for what’s to come.

Emmett’s murder would become one of the most publicized and important moments of the American civil rights movement. Knowing that his tale would be swept under the rug just like any other story of white-on-black violence, Mamie had her son’s beaten and bloated body put on display so that millions could not forget what had been done. It was a controversial move, but one that has kept Emmett’s legacy alive decades later, and shined a brighter light on the issue of lynchings in the American south.

Even if she doesn’t fully illustrate the viciousness inflicted upon Emmett (a long shot of the scene of the crime with distant screams is all we get), Chukwu doesn’t shy away from the aftermath. The body is put on display to both the characters and the viewers, with the first sight of it sending shivers down the spine.

But the appearance of the body creates a divide, as it seems to come from a much rougher film than what this ultimately becomes. As time goes by, the glossy biopic trappings begin to set in, most annoyingly present when Abel Korzeniowski’s mismatched score barges its way in. Things are played by the book, stretched across a 130-minute runtime filled with the usual rage-inducing courtroom scenes and a few odd winks to other moments within the movement.

Fortunately, with Danielle Deadwyler front and center, much of those negative thoughts drift away. Given a lead role after years in much smaller ones (The Harder They Fall, HBO’s Watchmen), Deadwyler delivers a performance that is both heartbreaking and uplifting. With several long takes gifted by Chukwu, she displays powerful courage in the face of danger. She’ll deservedly be a force to be reckoned with come this Oscar season.

If only she was served in a better film that followed through on its early promises of nuance. But even with its late-act shortcomings, Till remains an important retelling of history that is, sadly, just as relevant in the present as it was in the past.

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