As we know, Emmett Till was murdered three days after he arrived in Money. On August 24, 1955, he interacted with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), a White woman who worked at a store frequented by Blacks. The stories varied as to the details of that encounter, and “Till” takes from several different sources. We see Emmett compare Bryant to a movie star before flashing a picture of a White girl that came with his wallet. That part of the story was disputed by Simeon Wright, who provided his own account of the events of that day in 2015. Wright did confirm Emmett wolf-whistling at Bryant, which the movie depicts. I thought that was a bit confusing, as I’d always been told that Emmett whistled before speaking to help with his stutter, and that was misconstrued by Bryant as meant for her.
No matter. What happens next is not in dispute. Though Chukwu keeps her press release promise not to depict any violence against her Black characters onscreen, she does show several White men and a few Black men forcibly retrieving Emmett from Preacher’s house. The anguish of Thompson’s performance here and the confusion Hall displays will haunt viewers long after the film is over, as will Hall’s off-camera screams in the brief scene where Chukwu alludes to his murder.
From here, “Till” focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley and her attempt to get justice after her son’s disappearance. Deadwyler is astonishingly good here, masterfully navigating every emotion we’d think a mother would have, and then a few we may not have originally considered. Her outrage is palpable as the NAACP lawyers ruthlessly interrogate her relationship with future husband Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas) and her brief marriage to ex-husband “Pink” Bradley. (Emmett’s father died in World War II.) Later, when her son’s body is found, Deadwyler does some of her best work in the film.
The way “Till” depicts Till-Mobley’s scenes with Emmett’s body are sure to be controversial. Chukwu keeps him obscured when his mother first enters the room, which led me to believe he would not be depicted. Then the camera lifts so we can see the full brunt of the damage done. Chukwu takes her time as we witness Deadwyler touching various parts of her son, sparing nothing. It felt overwhelming, and I was of two minds about this sequence. On the one hand, it felt a bit exploitative despite its undeniable power. On the other, Mamie Till-Mobley wanted the world to see what those men had done to her boy; so strong was her desire that she had an open casket funeral and put his body on the cover of Jet Magazine. Some criticized her for doing this, so in a way, “Till” is honoring this decision.