The decision to dramatise an historical event brings with it a series of ethical questions. As much as we might like to believe that every significant moment in history is worthy of cinematic adaptation, not all of them (like the life of Stephen Hawkins in 'The Theory of Everything' or the writing of 'A Christmas Carol' in 'The Man Who Invented Christmas') offer strong enough material for a narrative film. There are also those stories where it could feel inappropriate to recreate them. Are there just some stories that we shouldn't dramatise, shouldn't recreate, shouldn't resurrect at risk of re-traumatising? Justin Kurzel had to navigate this issue with 'Nitram', and now acclaimed Nigerian-American filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu does the same with 'Till', addressing one of the most upsetting moments in American history.
On the 28th of August 1955, black American teenager Emmett Till was kidnapped from his uncle and aunt's farm in Mississippi, brutally beaten and lynched. While racial violence towards people of colour had tempered in the northern states (tempered, but was still present), the southern states such as Mississippi were openly hostile, violent and prejudiced against them, and acts of violence such as those that happened to Emmett were shockingly common. What made Emmett's death distinct was both his devastatingly young age and the actions that were taken by his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, immediately after his death. Horrified by what had been inflicted on her son, she chose to publicly display his brutalised body as a statement on the racial violence being allowed to occur without legal repercussions, and thus began a life of fierce activism to ensure that what happened to Emmett did not happen again. Though this kind of violence persists to this day, the story of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Bradley has become a watershed moment in the pursuit for civil rights amongst people of colour in the United States.
When it was announced that Chukwu would co-write and direct a film about Emmett and Mamie, there was justifiable concern. Though this has started to shift, the majority of major Hollywood filmmaking depicting the lives of people of colour often concerns itself with racially-motivated violence being inflicted upon black bodies. What could be gained from recreating one of the most notorious and disturbing acts of racial violence in the last century? This wasn't an issue only raised in regards to 'Till'; the same concerns had been expressed with such projects as the HBO series 'Lovecraft Country', which itself addressed Emmett's death. It stood to reason that a filmmaker of Chikwu's calibre would take a sensitive approach rather than an unnecessarily graphic or exploitative one, but the ethical question still stood over whether such an endeavour was appropriate.
Wisely, 'Till' is weighted towards the story of Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, TV's 'Station Eleven') rather than Emmett (Jalyn Hall, 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls'). To counteract the risk of adding even greater trauma for audience members of colour, Chukwu balances the film more in favour of the aftermath of Emmett's lynching, using Mamie's pursuit of justice to highlight how the legal and social system in 1955 (and consequently, today) is built to prevent this.
The first thing you notice about 'Till' is how bright and colourful a film it is. Rather than the landscape and light mirroring the devastation of the subject, the action takes place in dazzling daylight, with every colour popping off the screen. There is a sense of heightened reality to the film as a consequence, along with Bobby Bukowski's ever-so-slightly stylised cinematography. It's as if Chukwu is concocting the Technicolor suburban American landscapes of Douglas Sirk, but here the contrast between surface presentation and seething violence is all the more pronounced and disturbing. There are also several intriguing beats in the first act of the film where it almost seems as if Mamie is slipping out of this reality - an unsettledness riding in the car with Emmett, a slip out of tone in a card game - as if we might be stepping into her memory, an attempt to reconstruct and understand. At its best, 'Till' gently touches on such idiosyncrasies, suggesting a desire to move out of the tired biopic tropes. And as the story unfolds, it makes its case for this being necessary. Mamie, both historically and in the extraordinary hands of Deadwyler, is a woman who refuses to comply with the traditional expectations of a grieving mother. Her decision to display Emmett in an open casket and have his body photographed for the press is a radical, unsettling and astonishing act of defiance, and if the intention of 'Till' is for us to stand in awe at the power of this woman, weaving her grief into an iron rod of fury, then it certainly achieves this.
Where the film falters though is that, rather than embracing a different kind of cinematic language for a story of this magnitude, it ultimately just reverts to those tired biopic tropes. Nothing original is done with the structure, and even with those flashes of possibility, the action plays out exactly as expected. While the film thankfully never goes as far as to show Emmett's lynching, it does take us frighteningly close to the point of showing it, which feels both unhelpfully uncomfortable as well as obvious. When we are exposed to the full extent of the racial prejudice at play in the trial of his attackers, the film never musters more than a perfunctory energy. Rather than feeling outraged, we shake our heads in disappointment, as if to say, "Ah yes, this is how I thought it would happen, what a pity."
Perhaps this is asking too much of the film, but this almost passive approach really stuck out, and for a number of reasons. The first in terms of the texture of the film is that Danielle Deadwyler, revealing herself to be one of our best actors with her performance as Mamie, approaches the character with a contained yet seismic fury, as if she is holding everything together not to literally tear the world apart in her grief. It is a total, all-consuming and consummate performance, but the film never rises to match her. Maybe it is trying to stay out of her way and give her the necessary space, but by not rising to meet that fury, it lacks the punch to both support her and to solidify its emotional position. And this leads to the second issue with the passivity of the film, that it makes us feel sad and sympathetic when it should make us feel furious. I write this as a white Australian male, someone who has never experienced racial discrimination or violence, but what I felt at the end of this film, as someone who (whether I like it or not) is complicit in the system that allows this violence to happen, that I was being let off easy. I felt sad when I should have felt sick; I felt disappointed when I should have felt disgusted; I felt sympathetic for Mamie when I should have felt furious for her. And everything about this woman - especially in the hands of Deadwyler - asks for fury. This isn't to say that what we needed was explicit violence; quite the opposite. The language of film is capable of such confronting anger without resorting to obvious exploitative tricks. Emotional violence is possible with a sharp edit or a demanding structure, choices that jolt us out of complacency and force us to listen and to learn.
Rather than embracing a different kind of cinematic language for a story of this magnitude, it ultimately just reverts to those tired biopic tropes.
It's hard to blame Chinonye Chukwu entirely for this film's passivity. There's no question that she has a firm hand in guiding the film, so accomplished is its craft and the quality of its performances. Those flashes of inspiration suggest a more radical film bubbling under the surface, and I could feel it straining against the traditional biopic restraints. This is, after all, a studio film, and I can't help but wonder whether it was the (predominantly white) filmmaking system in which it was made demanding that it be more palatable and relatable for a white audience (which no film from a non-white filmmaker should ever be asked to do).
I do want to acknowledge a fascinating thread that runs through the film, that of Mamie's self-awareness of her public persona. From the moment she decides to display Emmett's body and testify at the trial of his murderers, she begins to carefully coordinate and construct a new version of herself. I was reminded in many ways of Natalie Portman's approach in 'Jackie', but Deadwyler and Chukwu have more at stake here. It even comes in how she names her son, transitioning from Beau, her pet name for him, to Emmett, and her embracing of the Till name even though, through remarriage after her first husband's death, it isn't her legal name. As well as a woman of unbelievable strength, we also see one of canny awareness, carefully considering how she can manipulate the system built against her to work in her favour. Though it never takes centre stage, this thread through the film is easily its most intriguing.
There's so much to appreciate and admire in 'Till', not just its craft and performances but also its compassion. In the end though, it left me feeling unsettled and frustrated. Should a film have been made about the lynching of Emmett Till? This film certainly makes a strong case for it. But is this film enough? By peddling back in its climax towards a gentler, more inspirational approach, I was left wondering why, apart from all the obvious "important biopic" reasons, this film needed to exist, more so than if it had been a book or a documentary. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about the final minutes of 'BlacKkKlansman', how it blew all its comedy apart and roared in the face of its audience, demanding accountability and action. After experiencing the devastating story of Emmett Till and the incredible achievement of Mamie Till-Bradley, shouldn't I be feeling the same? American cinema has given space to acknowledged the racial violence inflicted on black bodies in the United States over the last 300 years. It shouldn't be pulling its punches when reminding us that nothing has changed.