Emmett Till

Endowed with unflagging determination, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp willed “Till” to the screen. Knowing his sense of sharing and self-effacing, he will reject being singled out for the success of the film, which had its premiere last weekend at the Alice Tully Hall as part of the New York Film Festival. But ever since he produced and directed the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” in 2005, the result of ten years of dedication and research, a feature film on the life of the brutally lynched Till has been his dream. That dream is now manifest, deftly directed by Chinonye Chukwu, who along with Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, wrote the script. Whoopi Goldberg and the late Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin, are among the producers.

The screenplay is thoughtfully rendered and a special resonance arrives as soon as Mamie Till Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and Emmett (Jalyn Hall) come into focus, and it’s a poignant moment of reflection and history as they ride in a car singing along with a version of “Sincerely.” When they both in unison sing the line “you know how I love you” the intimacy of the mother-son connection is firmly established and from here the story moves ineluctably toward a tragedy that most informed Americans know.

Beauchamp’s documentary is the best guide on this tragic journey, but since the incident occurred in August 1955 it has been recounted numerous times in books, newspapers, and even in song, recalling Bob Dylan’s lament. Rosa Parks said she was thinking about Emmett when she made her bold move in Montgomery. But now the film is here and it’s a powerful depiction, replete with integrity and Chukwu’s intuitive sense of Mamie’s pain and loss. For those who don’t know the story, Emmett was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was sent south to visit with his relatives in Money, Mississippi. And the film artfully channels the mood and tone of the era; the vistas are sharply delineated.

Emmett Till killing featured in the Amsterdam News on September 10, 1955 Credit: AmNews Archives

Hall captures Emmett’s swagger, his Chicago hipness right up to the moment he enters the Bryant’s store and encounters Carolyn Bryant. A portion of the meeting is foreshadowed when a photo of a white woman is revealed in his wallet. He will flash this to Mrs. Bryant and conduct a dialogue that ultimately evolves into the wolf whistle that for years was questioned—did he or didn’t he whistle? Simeon Wright answered that question conclusively in his book, noting that Emmett in fact did whistle at her and this signaled the beginning of the end.

When the contretemps between them reached her husband and his half-brother, Emmett was doomed, and one early morning shortly thereafter they arrived, abducted him with help of a Black man, and a nod from Carolyn in the truck assured them that he was the “boy from Chicago.”

Among the unknown things about the Till tragedy is the personal life of Mamie. This is done in sharp relief as other members of her family such as her mother portrayed by Goldberg, her father by the veteran actor Frankie Faison, are included in the drama. There is even cameo appearances of the legendary civil rights activists Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) and T.R.M Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith). A commanding performance is delivered by John Douglass Thompson as Moses Wright, Emmett’s great-uncle. Some of the grisly details are skipped, though we do hear Emmett being tortured but viewers are spared of seeing his body being salvaged from the Tallahatchie River, a huge gin fan around his neck.

Knowledgeable viewers were concerned about how Emmett’s horribly disfigured face would look, after Mamie insisted that she “wanted the world to see what they had done to her son.” It was Emmett’s battered and butchered face that Beauchamp saw as a teenager that set in motion his endless pursuit. Rather than hitting viewers with a full frontal exposure, the way Beauchamp and millions of others saw in the newspapers, the camera eased around the corpse, slowly showing other body parts before presenting the brutalized face. Even so, this image was tamped down because the real deal was much worse.

The trial of the accused was the next dramatic sequence and this too was told with care and sensitivity.  With Beauchamp aboard there was no need to worry about accuracy; as Goldberg told the audience at the end of the film when she and Deadwyler and Chukwu discussed the film with the Festival executive director Eugene Hernandez, how crucial Beauchamp “was in making all of this possible.”

Deadwyler’s soliloquy after testifying at the trial and her comments at various events sponsored by the NAACP should place her in strong contention for cinematic awards. She is a consummate actress and Mamie’s humanity was in good hands, despite the overwhelming burden of sorrow and disgust.

There are two disappointments that cannot be rectified—that Simeon and Mamie are not here to witness this film, to see how marvelous the story was handled. At the screening, it was good to see Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by the police in 1999. She was also at a graveside ceremony for Till in 2015. To be sure, this film struck at the heart of her emotional center, as it is certain to do for many mothers who have tragically lost a child, especially by racists who later confessed that they did it. This was a note at the end of the film along with the message that Mamie had died in 2003. “Till” taken together with Beauchamp’s documentary and you have a graphic tableau of American hatred, the ongoing current of systemic racism.

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