Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t look away. Whether referring to Mamie Till-Mobley telling family members to look at the disfigured boy in the casket, or to the general counsel to all citizens in this day of division, the sentiment is the same … see with your own eyes so that you understand the injustice. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (CLEMENCY, 2019) and her co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp allow us to see the tragic story of Emmett Till through the eyes of his mother, and it’s a powerful approach. It’s Mr. Beauchamp who has diligently researched this story for almost 25 years, and was the driving force behind the 2005 documentary, THE UNTOLD STORY OF EMMETT LOUIS TILL.
The film certainly benefits from the powerhouse performance of Danielle Deadwyler (THE HARDER THEY FALL, 2021) as Mamie Till-Mobley. Mamie’s love and concern for her 14-year-old son Emmett (a terrific Jalyn Hall) is only surpassed by her strength and dignity after his death … and all of this is masterfully portrayed by Ms. Deadwyler in her surefire Oscar contending role. We see just enough of young Emmett to realize he’s a well-raised, considerate, and fun-loving boy who sometimes stutters. He’s so excited for his trip from Chicago to Mississippi to meet some of his relatives, while seeing and doing new things. It’s 1955, and Mamie tries to caution Emmett on the differences between their world at home and the southern world he’s about to enter.
There are varying accounts of what Emmett actually did or didn’t do to Money, Mississippi store clerk Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett, SWALLOW, 2019), but the shock of seeing Emmett’s disfigured face and body is handled brilliantly here, and though the actual violence occurs off screen, the impact remains. Against all of her motherly protective instincts, Mamie seizes the power of the moment to have a photograph taken and demand an open casket so that the world can witness the result of the atrocity. Her ability to think clearly catapulted the case to national attention, and allowed Emmett Till to become a name and example that is still studied today.
The supporting cast includes Frankie Faison (Mamie’s father), Whoopi Goldberg (Mamie’s mother), Sean Patrick Thomas, Tosin Cole (as Medgar Evers), John Douglas Thompson, and Jayme Lawson. The trial of the men accused of beating and killing Emmett plays a part here, but the only real courtroom drama occurs when Mamie takes the stand. It’s in that moment when Ms. Deadwyler truly shines and allows us to feel a mother’s pain and disgust. Afterwards, we get a taste of her activism … something she continued until her death in 2003 at age 81. Filmmaker Chukwu benefits from the performance of Deadwyler and the years of research by Mr. Beauchamp, and she delivers a film that allows us to experience a dark moment in history from a different perspective – the eyes of a mother.
Opens in theaters on October 21, 2022