Emmett Till’s murder is one of the iconic events of the Civil Rights struggle. It’s so well known that many viewers may well wonder why we need another retelling.
There are many, many movies that focus on Black pain, including (in just the last decade) 2013’s 12 Years a Slave and 2019’s Queen and Slim. Many Black critics and scholars have pointed out that representations of Black pain don’t necessarily provoke sympathy in white people or catalyze change.
Instead, visualizing misery can be counterproductive or cynical, a way for creators to make money from white audiences who like to see Black people suffer while retraumatizing Black viewers.
Chinonye Chukwu’s new film Till is very aware of these critiques. It engages with them by being very careful what it shows and what it does not, and by acknowledging both the potential and the limitations of portraying injustice.
Showing Emmett Till
The film begins in Chicago in summer 1955. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) is preparing to visit his cousins in Mississippi. His single mother, Mamie Till-Bradley (Danielle Deadwyler), is worried that he is not prepared for the repressive atmosphere of the Jim Crow South.
Her fears are born out; young Emmett whistles at female store clerk Carolyn Bryant (played with smug malice by Haley Bennett). She tells her husband and his half-brother, and they track Emmett down and murder him.
Chukwu takes pains to portray Emmett with dignity and love. The early scenes in Chicago feature the radiant Jalyn Hall lip-syncing to doo-wop and dancing joyfully with his mother to jump blues. He’s a little spoiled—as a 14-year-old should be—and absolutely confident that he is loved. He’s a child.
Watching that child’s happiness and security turn to terror is very difficult. Chukwu shows us his reactions as the white men come for him, and she shows his powerlessness and fear. But she doesn’t show us his actual murder. We only hear, very distantly, the sounds of struggle while the camera lingers on the dark farm where Emmett suffers, off-screen.
Lynchings were often public spectacles for white people in the 1950s. Chokwu does not want to provide that kind of entertainment or validation for those who enjoy watching Black people being tortured.
In the film, you do see Emmett’s body after death, when his coffin is shipped to Chicago. Mamie demanded an open-casket funeral because she wanted the world to see what Mississippi had done to her child. The photos appeared in Jet, and (as numerous other characters tell her) they had a powerful effect on shifting sentiment in favor of Civil Rights legislation.
The bloated, brutalized corpse on screen is shocking. But it is Mamie, originally, who wanted to use those images to shock. Chokwu, in reproducing this particular spectacle of Black pain, is abiding by her wishes.
And she frames those wishes, explicitly, as an act of love. When Mamie in the film first sees her son’s bloated, scarred body, she runs her hands over it, caressing her child for the last time. When she testifies at the trial of Emmett’s two murderers in Mississippi, she says that touching him in this way assured her he was her child, even when his face was unrecognizable. Love is something you feel. Mamie’s hope is that by displaying her feeling, she can move others to love too.
A Spectacle of Hate
Moving others to love isn’t so easy though. The white judge, jury, and audience in the Mississippi courtroom are hostile. Deadwyler gives a convincing, heart-wrenching performance as a woman on the edge of collapse, holding herself together through sheer righteous anger and courage. But the jury isn’t moved.
Here too, Chukwu is deliberate in what she visualizes. As Mamie talks, we see only her face; there are few reaction shots from the court. This is her story, and the reactions of the people who, directly or indirectly, conspired in the society that murdered her son, are irrelevant.
When Carolyn Bryant testifies, she lies on the stand that Emmett sexually assaulted her. Then she physically demonstrates how Emmett supposedly grabbed her. The camera cuts away, so you never see this pantomime for the jury. Her story is so transparently false, and so transparently evil, it does not deserve screentime.
There is little of white people’s reactions on screen. But we see how the Black community responds to Mamie. Mamie is shown after the trial receiving thanks and appreciation. The (somewhat inevitable) text at the end of the film credits her with advancing the cause of Civil Rights through her courage and testimony.
The text, though, also notes that Emmett’s murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam never face justice. Neither did Carolyn Bryant. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was finally passed. But only in 2022, nineteen years after Mamie’s death, and sixty-six after Emmett’s.
Mamie demanded that the country look at her son. Till honors her decision. It treats the spectacle of pain with respect, and makes the case for its power to build solidarity and enact change.
But the movie also acknowledges that pain is not necessarily transformative. There is no real catharsis in this movie, as in comparatively glib Spielberg films like Amistad or Schindler’s List, which end with reassurances and celebration. Mothers continue to grieve. America continues to be very racist. Till knows that no movie can change that. The hope it offers is difficult to see.
Till opens in theaters on October 14.
Rating: 8.0 SPECS
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.