When they murdered Emmett Till he was only 14 years old. The year was 1955 and he was kidnapped in the middle of the night and lynched while visiting his family in Mississippi from Chicago.
Recently, the long-overdue federal anti-lynching act now bears his name and his terrible murder has been re-told through films and plays.
The newest re-telling of young Till’s terrible fate is done by Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”) and it’s clear that his gruesome murder galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement.
In making “Till,” the director stepped into the telling in a bold way without missing any part of the emotional impact. She didn’t show the young man’s murder on the screen, refusing to dramatize what these white men, Roy Bryant, and John William Milam, did to Emmett.
She barely pushes into the interaction between the boy and shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) which gave these white murderers the “fire” that moved them to such a heinous act. Instead “Till” focuses on Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and shows the strength and the heroism that she demonstrated during one of the most difficult times in anyone’s life. Not only did Mamie rise to the occasion, she demonstrated the power of a mother’s love—still reaching through time and space—to make sure that no one forgets what happened to her son.
Emmett’s journey started innocently with his mother sending her son down south to Mississippi, fully expecting him to return safe and sound two weeks later. Instead, he’s returned in a body bag. No mother should ever be burdened with what she was forced to handle. And to show the world what was done to her innocent child, she arranged for Emmett’s horrifically disfigured body to be photographed, and she insisted that he receive a public funeral, where his casket was left open for the world to see. Emmett clearly became a part of history and his mother took charge of making sure he would not be forgotten.
She traveled to Money, Miss., and testified in the trial against Bryant and Milam, knowing that Southern justice would side with the murderers.
Under cross-examination, the devious defense lawyers attempted to toss the question, asking whether the corpse was her son, suggesting that the two life insurance policies she had in his name were the incentive to declare him dead. And at each jab, Mamie gathers her strength and stares down the face of hate and racism that was carefully crafted to try to discredit her. There’s no question that the crooked justice system failed her, so Mamie shares the facts with the world.
“Till” is a moving film and you would have to be made of stone not to feel the pain in this story. Emmett’s grandmother (Whoopi Goldberg) helps her deal with the pain of facing the loss and absorbing the sobering fact that his murderers thought they were teaching him a “lesson,” but what happened to this young, innocent African American boy isn’t a singular case. This type of violence is part of injustice so entrenched in America’s bloody, murderous past that the crime predictably went unpunished. Let “Till” be a reminder of everything wrong with this country—still!