Wednesday 11 January 2023

This boy's life: "Till"

I only learnt about Emmett Till a matter of years ago; it's not a lesson that could be easily (by which I may mean painlessly) taught to those of Till's age. (As the recent
Armageddon Time underlined, finding the language for these conversations is essential but difficult: how do you instruct a wide-eyed kid that there is injustice, and often sheer beastliness, at large in this world?) This is perhaps where the movies come in - and, in particular, the current wave of films addressing underheralded moments in Black (thus American, and thus world) history. Chinonye Chukwu's Till comes at us with a usefully ambiguous title. Its first act, certainly, offers what we might expect from a movie bearing Emmett Till's name: some sense of this kid's personality, being that of an aspirant dandy (Jalyn Hall) clueless to what awaits him in Mississippi; a wider sense of a country divided along racial lines (and why a city boy like Till had to be extra careful when visiting the Deep South in 1955); and the sorry conclusion to a story that still appears too sorrowful for sustained multiplex contemplation. That movie, like the life it portrays, is brought to an end far too soon. Thereafter, Till picks up with the boy's mother Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) - observed through that first half missing her lad in ways she can't yet conceive - as she mourns, tries to find the words to express her loss, and then attempts to get her side of the story out - at least as far as the American public. Till-Mobley was neither the first mother, nor would she be the last, to find herself in this position. But she found a novel way to confront the world in the wake of her son's murder - and in doing so, ensured her surname could itself merit enshrinement in the title of a major motion picture.

Till is certainly that, but it's also a movie that's been structured around an atrocity, much as Chukwu's breakthrough film, 2019's Clemency, was structured around a looming Death Row execution. Again, evident thought has been given to how such an atrocity might best be incorporated within a feature aiming to draw healthy crowds. In part, it's a matter of knowing when to cut away (of the initial lynching, we hear only distant screams) and when to cut to the quick. The direction soon falls in synch with Deadwyler's fine performance, which alternates between displays of individual control (not responding unduly to a security guard's microaggressions, say) and something far rawer once the grave news is broken. It's Deadwyler who teaches us how to watch the movie's tricky, pivotal mortuary scene, which at first seems to be relying on the cinema's most delicately positioned gurney before a decidedly - and intentionally - WTF reveal. Deadwyler shows us the mother trying to find the son inside the scarring, lets slip one almighty howl of rage and regret at the fact she should have to go looking for consolation, and then masterly conveys Mamie's realisation that the scarring, the violation and desecration, is the story here; that it will make others, possibly even dyed-in-the-wool racists, stop in their tracks the way it did her (and us). It shouldn't have to be, but maybe that's what it takes in a country where such atrocities have become inseparable from the national fabric. Maybe not, too: what prevents Till from becoming the by-the-book conscience-pricker its outline suggests is the painful knowledge it retains, again drawn from close attention to history, that Emmett Till's murder was a teachable moment from which America steadfastly refused to learn.

That makes it an important story - that of a sorely missed opportunity - but in Chukwu's hands, it's also one told judiciously and rigorously, at every turn exhibiting the same diligence and duty of care one would seek were this narrative still unfolding today. (Which, of course, it still is.) The script, credited to Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, hews to a conventional structure, carrying everyone to a final-act crossfire of perspectives inside a courtroom. But that final stop ultimately proves less memorable than how the film feels its way there, closely tied as that is to how Mamie Till-Mobley felt her way there: trying to reconcile her own responses to this grim episode, and to bridge the attitudes of the American North and South. As we know, this division wasn't going to disappear overnight, but if white America didn't learn anything from these events, Till suggests Black America learnt plenty: the extent of what it was up against (not just prejudice and violence, but structural biases and blindspots), how to channel its rage and grief, how to ensure corrective action of some kind is taken, no matter that it might to many have seemed too little too late. What keeps Till on the right side of stirring is its tacit understanding that, for all its tragedy, Mamie Till-Mobley's life was finally a triumph - a triumph of overcoming and perpetuation. Emmett Till's story may have gone unheeded by the majority for the next fifty years - and clearly never made it as far as West Midlands secondary schools - but it was always out there, with a potent set of images and implications attached to it. It's possibly a surprise just how many of those images and implications have found their way into the 12A-rated film now playing in a multiplex near you. But Chukwu, like Mamie Till-Mobley before her, keeps this boy's memory alive - while fervently wishing more could have been done at the time to preserve the kid himself.

Till is now showing in selected cinemas.

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