REVIEW: Till (dir. Chinonye Chukwu)

Certificate: 12A (racism, disturbing images, upsetting scenes, moderate threat). Running Time: 115 mins. UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

WHO’S IN IT?

Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg, Jayme Lawson, Tosin Cole, Kevin Carroll, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, Riger Guenveur Smith

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Chinonye Chukwu (director, writer), Keith Beauchamp, Michael Reilly (writers, producers), Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas Levine, Frederick Zollo (producers), Abel Korzeniowski (composer), Bobby Bukowski (cinematographer), Ron Patane (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

After her son Emmett (Hall) is murdered, Mamie Till (Deadwyler) becomes a civil rights campaigner…

WHAT DO I THINK OF IT?

Kicking off 2023 by watching the harrowing story of Emmett Till, the young Black teen who in 1955 was brutally murdered by Mississippi racists, doesn’t exactly put you in the highest of spirits for the year ahead. However, what director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu’s Till manages to do rather well is to look beyond the devastation and the heartbreak – though don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of that here too – and find a purely human soul amidst the chaos, albeit one that’s filled to the brim with grief, guilt, anger, and even confusion.

It is this soul that lights the exceptionally emotional Till, enough to where I really was close to choking up quite a few times – and I can’t remember the last time that I felt that way during a film.

In one of the many ways that Till subverts standard historical drama conventions, it has a completely straightforward structure, beginning not with a flash-forward to some important event that’s then followed by “however many number of days/weeks/months/years earlier”, but right at the beginning of the story proper, as most stories should. This one begins in August 1955, as young Chicago resident Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) is getting ready to visit some cousins in Mississippi. His mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), is understandably concerned for her son’s travels, since the Southern state might as well be a different planet in terms of how Black people are treated, compared to the rest of the United States at the time – although, as we see in one of the film’s very first scenes in a department store, not even Chicago is above a few racial micro-aggressions here and there. Sure enough, Mamie’s worst fears are realised when Emmett is abducted, tortured, mutilated and shot by local men for the simple but innocent act of whistling towards white store owner Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), and his body is brought back to Chicago in a state where he’s almost unrecognisable. Fuelled by rage and despair for her son’s death, Mamie gives the world access to Emmett’s mangled corpse, in the hopes that everyone can see the evils of racism with their own eyes, catapulting her into the spotlight during the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

The story of Emmett Till is already one that would break the hearts of anyone with an ounce of humanity, but there is something about seeing everything dramatized here in the ways that Chukwu and co-writers Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly have done, that makes it all so much more emotional to watch. The chronological structure really works here, because it allows the viewer to spend a good amount of time with these characters before anything bad happens, and in that time there is so much to like and respect about them – Jalyn Hall, in particular, brings plentiful charisma as the ill-fated young lad – that when the inevitable strikes, it hits extra hard. Seeing what becomes of sweet and playful Emmett, who in many scenes prior was shown to be full of life and love for his family and friends, is an extraordinary gut-punch, and in a disturbing but important scene it is shown in detail exactly how his body has been altered beyond recognition, which leaves one in a serious state of shock because it’s almost impossible to believe that something so barbaric and inhumane could happen to someone that the viewer has come to know and like.

Likewise, Mamie – whose reactions to her son’s death, and the legal repercussions that follow shortly after, form the central focus of Till – begins the film just like any other concerned and slightly overprotective mother (and that’s before she allows her son to travel to Jim Crow-era Mississippi), but she is humanised in scenes where you become familiar with her stoic yet empathetic personality as she interacts with friends, love interests, and other civil rights figures later on. She is written and developed well enough that, again, when what happens happens, it is difficult not to be moved by the devastation that lands upon her like a ton of bricks, because not only has an emotional connection been well and truly established between the character and the audience, but the performance by Danielle Deadwyler is so powerful that you’d have to have a heart made of stone to not tear up whenever she breaks down in tears. In a lead turn that’s absolutely deserving of some awards attention, Deadwyler commands the screen with a fierce control of her emotions, which the actor brilliantly conveys while still maintaining her character’s stiff composure, and when it’s time for it all to come pouring out, you’re right there alongside her as she expresses everything from grief to fury to reluctant acceptance of the dire legal consequences regarding her son’s killers (all you need to know is that it’s an all-white jury in Mississippi deciding their fate).

The writing, the filmmaking, and especially the acting are all across the board fantastic, but it is the emotional impact of Till that really surprised me the most. Of course, going in I knew that I wasn’t going to get a jolly, happy-go-lucky romp, but I also didn’t expect to get genuinely choked up watching this tragedy unfold, which is something that I haven’t done in a movie for a very long time. It’s a testament to the filmmaking and storytelling that this movie was able to say what it needed to say about the real evils in the world without feeling manipulative or overly lionising its central historical figures, and did so in such a way where you really felt like you knew and understood them before they were consumed by hatred and sorrow, making it all the more rational to have such an emotional reaction to it all. By the final few frames, I was completely captivated by this story and the ways in which it was being told, enough to generate a few well-earned lumps in the throat from the sheer emotional power alone.

In other words, a pretty strong start to 2023.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Till is a powerful historical drama that effectively tells the tragic story of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie’s mission to show the world what prejudice has done to him, which director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu approaches with a chronological structure that places strong emphasis on the emotional connection to these central figures, who are played fantastically by Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall.

Till will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 6th January 2023 – click here to find a screening near you!

Did you like this review? Want to know when the next one comes out?

Sign up to our e-mail service today, and get our latest reviews and previews sent straight to your inbox!

Search from over ten years of movies here:

Other recent reviews:

Sting (2024, dir. Kiah Roache-Turner)

A mysterious little spider soon grows to terrifying sizes…

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024, dir. George Miller)

A young Furiosa attempts to make her way home in a post-apocalyptic wasteland…

The Garfield Movie (2024, dir. Mark Dindal)

The lazy cat Garfield comes face-to-face with his long-lost father…

The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024, dir. Renny Harlin)

A couple find themselves tormented by masked intruders…

IF (2024, dir. John Krasinski)

A young girl develops the ability to see people’s imaginary friends…

Hoard (2024, dir. Luna Carmoon)

A troubled teen begins a dysfunctional relationship with an older man…

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024, dir. Wes Ball)

Many years after the reign of Caesar, an ape-ruled kingdom comes under threat…

The Fall Guy (2024, dir. David Leitch)

A Hollywood stuntman winds up on an epic misadventure during his latest gig…

Tarot (2024, dirs. Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg)

A group of teenagers find themselves haunted after messing with spiritual tarot cards…

The Idea of You (2024, dir. Michael Showalter)

A 40-year-old single mother begins a relationship with a much younger pop star…