As we know, Emmett Till was murdered three days after he arrived at Money. On August 24, 1955, he interacted with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), a white woman who worked in a store frequented by blacks. Stories varied as to the details of that meeting, and “Till” draws from several different sources. We see Emmett compare Bryant to a movie star before showing a picture of a white girl who came with his wallet. That part of the story was disputed by Simeon Wright, who gave his own account of the events of that day in 2015. Wright confirmed the Emmett wolf whistle at Bryant that the film depicts. I found it a bit confusing as I had always been told that Emmett whistled before he spoke to help with his stutter and it was misinterpreted by Bryant as meant for her.
Does not matter. What happens next is not in doubt. Although Chukwu keeps her press release promise not to depict any violence against her black characters on screen, she shows several white men and a few black men forcibly retrieving Emmett from Preacher’s house. The agony of Thompson’s performance here and the confusion shown by Hall will haunt viewers long after the film ends, 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 attempts to obtain justice after her son’s disappearance. Deadwyler is amazingly good here, masterfully navigating all the emotions we think a mother would have, and then a few we might not have originally considered. Her outrage is palpable as the NAACP lawyers ruthlessly question 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 is sure to be controversial. Chukwu keeps him hidden when his mother first enters the room, which led me to believe that he would not be pictured. Then the camera lifts so we can see the full brunt of the damage. Chukwu takes his time as we watch Deadwyler touch various parts of his son sparing no effort. It felt overwhelming and I was in two minds about this sequence. On the one hand, it felt a bit exploitative despite its undeniable power. On the other hand, 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” respects that decision.