Danielle Deadwyler Delivers A Visceral Performance In Chinonye Chukwu’s Urgent Pursuit Of Justice [NYFF]

Jan 3, 2023

About twenty minutes into “Till” — the 1955 story of Emmett Till’s brutal murder — a moment encapsulating this conventional, elegantly rendered biopic’s greatest asset arises. An anxious Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), the mother of 14-year-old Emmett (she affectionately calls her son Bo), plays poker in the living room of her Chicago home with two of her girlfriends. The camera circles around the outside of their table as her friends chide Mamie to reveal what’s ailing her. Mamie goes through the motions while she plays her hand: A cigarette barely clinging to her fingers belies the fears rising from her with a similar pace as the smoke wafting toward the ceiling. The camera, searching for poignancy, is now stationed in front of Mamie and pushes in slowly. “If Bo could get his feet back on Chicago soil, he’d be one happy kid,” says Mamie, as a mess of conflicting emotions flood across her face.
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“Till” succeeds with these scenes, the ones where Deadwyler grants us an interiority to Mamie that the reluctant narrative, all too concerned with safe characterizations of complex people, cannot. “Till” is a breakthrough for Deadwyler, but you’re consistently left wondering — in a film purported to be about Mamie Till — why she exists merely as a symbol for the grief felt by Black mothers stretching across the continuum of history and nothing else. 
It is, however, a gorgeously translated film: The lighting by DP Bobby Bukowski (“The Messenger”) is overwhelmingly bright yet lush: In a movie concerned with witnessing, it’s as though Bukowski doesn’t want any detail or any small truth missed beneath the shadows. The controlled compositions and camera movement— this movie loves using elaborate pans and lenses that push in and searching tracking shots— and it’s through these stylish environments that unearth the rot and pain lurking in these spaces. The fluid editing by Ron Patane (“A Most Violent Year”) produces a plethora of juxtapositions that explain the two Americas, and the costume designs by Marci Rodgers (“Passing”) endows each scene with a resplendent vibrancy that belies the difficult subject matter.   
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Much of “Till” concerns the dynamics of Black martyrdom — How the murder of an ebullient African American kid from Chicago permanently became a catalyst for a nation to search its soul regarding its relationship with Jim Crow-sanctioned violence. 
In the early going, director Chinonye Chukwu shares the close relationship shared by a buoyant Bo (the tremendous Jalyn Hall) and his devoted mother. In Marshall Fields, she dotes on Bo by buying him a wallet for his trip to Mississippi. In their home, as the camera spins around them, they dance and sing. Bo loves performing for his mom. You can tell that he’s never met a problem with Mamie he couldn’t charm his way out of. It’s why Mamie is so worried about her son’s trip down south. She knows white folks are far less forgiving there. She pleads with Bo to please stick with his cousins and his uncle and aunt  — who are painfully aware of the “customs” of the region —and to be deferential to white people (to the point of practicing a groveling humbleness). These scenes are a collection of tender, humanizing articulations of a love shared by mother and son and the ways the state-sponsored domestic terrorism of the south forced Black folks to protect themselves by crushing their spirits to fit deep within themselves. In the south, Bo is not allowed to mirror the kind of the intelligent, precocious white kid that populated so much of the family-friendly television of the era. He must be docile and invisible. Bo, nevertheless, is unable to betray his selfhood.
Even now, 67 years after his murder, the recording of the circumstances that led to his death remains up for debate. We know that Bo arrived in Money, Mississippi, to stay a week with his family. Three days into his stay, he and his cousins entered a drugstore belonging to Carolyn Bryant (played here by Haley Bennett). Some reports say that Bo bragged about the picture of a white woman, whom he claimed was his girlfriend, that resided in his wallet. Others say that Bo wolf-whistled at Bryant, prompting her to retrieve a pistol with the intent of shooting them. No one is totally sure if Bo whistled because he was nervous or if the sound involuntarily arose from his stuttering. Chukwu chooses to show Bo turning to Bryant and emitting a playful whistle directly at her. It’s a provocative, unflinching choice by the director that lays to rest the reason behind the act: Because the point isn’t that he whistled; it’s that he was murdered over such an innocuous childlike response. 
In a film about witnessing, in fact, the reenactment of Bo’s death offers another critical choice: How much should (or can) Chukwu depict of that grisly night? While we do see Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam storm into the two-room home of Bo’s uncle, it’s what we don’t witness that centers the scene: Roy and Milam’s faces, for instance, are mostly obscured (we rarely get a glimpse of them at any point in the film; a conscious decision by Chukwu to dismiss their subjectivity). The murder itself is confined to a master shot of a barn sitting in an empty field. From it, Bo’s screams can be heard cutting through the southern air.   

The first forty minutes of “Till,” from the opening scene at Marshall Fields to Chukwu’s resolve to show Bo’s disfigured body on screen, offers successively bolder choices by the filmmaker. But the second half of the script, co-written by Chukwu with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, disappointingly hues closer to an incurious conventionality. 
As Mamie searches for justice for her son, reminders of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” flood forward. Where that movie succeeded, “Till” often comes up short. Because in an era of Black Lives Matter, DuVernay was aware of the inadequacies of making a strictly considered Martin Luther King Jr biopic. So “Selma” allowed MLK to be flawed; it surveyed how his nonviolent movement operated; it considered what successful collective action could look like. “Till” tries a similar path. Chukwu wants to chronicle the steps taken by Mamie to ensure the world knew what happened to her son — from the open casket to the Ebony Magazine cover to going to trial — and how she would later become a Civil Rights leader on behalf of the NAACP. But the film struggles to zoom out. After the murders of George Floyd, Laquan McDonald, Breonna Taylor, and too many more, what effect does Black martyrdom and the publication of trauma have today?
Maybe asking that question is applying a 2022 mindset to a 67-year-old event, but not even a period piece can merely live in the vacuum of the past. It must, especially in the case of a politically influential figure, speak to the moment of now. And, to be fair, Chukwu does, in drips and drops, allow that conversation to occur: At one point, on the radio, you can hear some Black folks agreeing with Mamie’s decision to publicize the gruesomeness of her son’s murder, and others who disagree. During another scene, Mamie laments how she must hide her relationship with Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas) because she needs to be the perfect, virtuous victim if she hopes to be believed. Her entire personhood must be sanded down so the symbol and the memory of her son can carry on.
It’s a shame, then, that “Till” similarly flattens Mamie into an ideal symbol. We never return to the strain the trial puts on her romantic life; we only catch a glance at an uneasy family dynamic between her mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and her father (Frankie Faison); we hear little of previous political thoughts. During an emotional cross-examination, in an aching monologue, Mamie reveals that she once thought she could ignore the problems of others so long as they did not reach her. She has now changed. Except, that change isn’t privy to us. For a director who found great success with “Clemency,” another film interested in the weight placed on Black women by the systematic force they inhabit, in that case, the prison system, it’s so frustrating to see a woman in Mamie who doesn’t exist outside of her commitment to her son. 
These limitations make Deadwyler’s vivid and visceral performance all the more astounding. While the script and camera provide plenty of opportunities for Deadwyler to fill a scene with her interiority. However, she often adds third and fourth levels that seem to override the narrow two-beat track of deep mourning and firm dignity applied to Mamie. It’s that kind of rich detail, regarding Deadwyler’s star-making performance and the deliberateness of the creative choices, that makes “Till” such an assured and daring, well-calibrated feature by Chukwu. Because though “Till” can not rewrite all of history’s wrong, you never doubt the genuineness of Chukwu’s intentions. This isn’t a salacious film. This isn’t taking advantage of Emmett Till’s memory for cheap prestige. Rather “Till” is an urgent and reverent, albeit flawed, pursuit of justice. [B] 
The New York Film Festival runs from September 30 to October 16. Follow along for all of our coverage from the festival here.

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