Movies set during the Civil Rights era or about anti-Blackness, in general, tend to be graphic. They tend to luxuriate in the violence committed against Black bodies and are often framed, either intentionally or unintentionally, through a white lens. A white gaze, if you will.
Chinonye Chukwu’s Till is part of a growing number of films forged not just in the Black gaze but also favoring cinematic craftsmanship over simple moralizing. Lushly photographed by Bobby Bukowski, I have seen few films as bright and colorful as Till. But, perhaps, that’s part of what makes Till such a galvanizing piece of work, the way Chukwu captures the joy, the palpable sense of love, mixed with genuine anxiety and purifying rage, all swirling together-but never to temper the emotions so much as complement them.
Written by Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp, and Chukwu herself, Till is about the lynching of Emmett Till. But Chukwu doesn’t show us the lynching. Indeed part of what makes Till so haunting and engrossing is what she chooses to show and what she chooses not to show.
Much like her previous work, Clemency, Chukwu will force us to sit in a moment and contemplate and observe. At times she will hold Bukowski’s camera at a distance, keeping us from getting too close, while at others, we are uncomfortably close to the action or framing the scene from a sharp angle or slightly off center. Bukowski and Chukwuuse the camera as a keen observer, keeping us forever on the outside.
Yet, the way that Chukwu captures the performances gives us glimpses into these people’s interior. Danielle Deadwyler as Maimie Till and Jayln Hall as young Emmett, affectionately called Bo by friends and family, can show us the emotional depths of these people in how they smile or with a glance. Chukwu and Bukowski use the camera like a scalpel to cut into the characters’ psyche and let us into their world.
Watching Till, I was struck by how I often forget Bo was only 14, a child. Chukwu shrewdly spends a good amount of time showing us Bo and Maimie living their life, preparing for his trip to Mississippi to visit family. She is rightly nervous.
Maimie and Bo live in Chicago, and while Chicago is hardly a utopia, Chukwu shows us how racism is different in different parts of the country. Yes, Chicago is segregated, but Missippi is where Maimie warns Bo, “Be small.” Hall’s Bo is effervescent, bursting with the joy of being alive. Something that makes Maime nervous as he prepares to visit his cousins.
Then one day, after working the fields, Bo and his cousins go to the local store. Bo can’t help but admire the shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Hailey Bennett) and tells her she looks like a movie star. She follows him out, and Bo makes an innocent wolf whistle, sealing his fate. For this, he is beaten and lynched.
Chukwu holds the camera outside the farmhouse; Bo’s screams and the sounds of the lynching blare over the soundtrack. She has no interest in showing us images we have seen before. It is not the violence but the result of violence. In many ways, Chukwu attempts to hold to the same message that the actual Maime Till trumpeted after her son’s murder. To make us see the horror’s result and demand we not look away.
I found myself transfixed by the way Chukwu so steadily and expertly allowed the dread to fill us by showing how the fear of Bo affects Deadwyler’s Maimie. Deadwyler’s performance is a tour de force as she speaks so much with her eyes and posture, frequently making the script seem redundant.
The events following Bo’s death feel like a different film, a safer film. After the reveal of Bo’s body, a moment that had me groaning in shock and disturbed me long after the movie ended, Till seems to fall into cliche. However, it never becomes boring, nor does Chukwu’s directing ever lag; Till remains one of the year’s most gorgeous and observed films.
But the second part of Till shows us how Maime goes from being an unconcerned Black woman who lives in Chicago to one of the formative voices of the Civil rights era. It becomes less about this intimate study of characters and how violence, both the act and terror, can stifle and shatter a person’s soul and more of a history lesson.
That’s not to say it’s not good; it’s just a stark contrast to the first half. I particularly liked the way that Chukwu didn’t shy away from how crafting a message and working the media factored into many decisions made during this time. At one point, Maime is questioned about her relationship with her boyfriend, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas), by the NAACP. Unfortunately, the questions they ask seem hardly relevant, speaking to her character and less to the tragedy.
Scene after scene, we see Maime either grieving or being lectured about how she must join the fight for Black civil rights. Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) reaches her the most as he chauffeurs her around Money, Mississippi, as she prepares to testify in the trial of her son’s murder. Maimie’s growth from a grieving mother to a Civil Rights icon feels truncated, mainly because we never get a sense of her politics before Bo’s death. Then again, it might be that Chukwu is attempting to show us a woman who discovers what has long since been background radiation and is now dealing with the direct fallout.
It is impossible to walk out of Till and not be impressed by Chukwu’s craftsmanship and incisive encapsulation of complicated emotions. Till, regardless of its flaws, is a bracing and contemplative film. It melds a movie about the violence that can shatter a community, even if it only ever physically touches one person, with a historical drama.
Images courtesy of United Artists Releasing
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