Till’s story is well known. In August of 1955, Till was kidnapped and murdered, his body dumped in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Fourteen at the time, Till was accused of whistling at a white woman at Bryant’s grocery store in the town of Money, Miss.
If Till were alive today he’d be 82 and the odds are good that we’d never have heard of him. Because he was killed, Till became a symbol of the torment and injustice that helped define the Jim Crow South.
Emmett Till was also a person with a family and a mother whose life was transformed by the torchbearers of white supremacy who murdered her son.
Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and starring Danielle Deadwyler as Emmett’s mother Mamie, Till stands as a powerful and moving story built around Deadwyler’s shattering performance.
After her son’s murder, Emmett’s mother made a difficult and, as it turned out, monumental decision. She insisted that Till’s bloated, mutilated body be returned to her in Chicago. She allowed Till’s body to be photographed. An open-casket bore shocking witness to the horrific consequences of Jim Crow lawlessness.
Confronted with unbearable tragedy, Mamie met the moment and helped turn it into a galvanizing event. Deadwyler also meets the moment as an actress playing a woman whose pain runs as deep as an inconsolable moan and whose anger fuses with righteousness.
A Chicago kid, Till traveled to Mississippi to visit cousins. His mother warned him that the attitude toward Black people would be different in Mississippi. She feared that her son might not fully grasp the dangers he could face.
As the young Till, Jalyn Hall creates a plucky teenager who arrives in the South with a playful attitude.
The scene at the tiny convenience store creates additional tension because we know that Carolyn Bryant, the store’s clerk, will distort what happens as a result of Till’s outgoing personality
And, well, you know the rest of the story.
Because we know the fate that awaits Till, the early scenes brim with impacted tension, a sense of unease that undercuts the portrait of closeness that Chukwu paints of a mother and her son.
Wisely, Chukwu doesn’t show Till’s torment at the hands of his murderers. She films the shed where they take him from a distance. We hear shouts and screams. The brutality remains off-screen, at least temporarily: It will reemerge more effectively when we see Till’s bloated body.
The second half of the movie covers the trial of Roy Bryant and JW Milam, the white men accused of Till’s murder. Few expected that justice to be done. It wasn’t.
Chukwu, who directed the equally powerful Clemency, grounds the movie in Deadwyler’s performance as a mother and supports it with performances from actors who play Till’s relatives and the team of Civil Rights workers who gathered around Mamie after the murder.
Whoopi Goldberg delivers a strong small performance as Till’s grief-stricken grandmother, a woman who encouraged the young man’s trip to Money, a town where the welcoming sign carried a cruelly ironic motto, “A Good Place to Raise a Boy.”
It’s difficult for the movie not to lose a bit of steam after Till’s murder. The trial made a mockery of justice. Mamie traveled to Money to witness the proceedings, which were rigged from the start.
But there’s no denying the sense of loss and will that Deadwyler’s performance makes so vivid. And let’s be honest: In a sane world, it should have been possible to put a teenager on a train, have him visit relatives in the South, and return to Chicago to get on with the rest of his life.
That future — so simple-sounding and ordinary — was brutally stolen in Money, Miss.