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  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Universal Pictures

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Danielle Deadwyler is shattering in this superb dramatisation of the lynching of Emmett Till

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) was taken by force from his cousins’ house in Mississippi, assaulted and murdered. Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley (The Harder They Fall’s Danielle Deadwyler) insisted that the world see how her son’s body had been brutalised. She held an open-casket funeral and invited journalists to photograph the body, creating images that were widely distributed in newspapers and spurred on the Civil Rights movement.

In Till, Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu powerfully memorialises Mamie’s call to bear witness. From the opening shot, when a low-angle camera rises gradually to frame Mamie’s face, Chukwu and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s inventive visual style asks us to observe and witness this remarkable woman. To witness her grief and despair at Emmett’s death, but in earlier scenes, also to witness her thrumming nervousness at the threats this racist society holds for her son. As his train leaves the platform, drawing him away from his mother, and safety, the camera zooms in on her anxious face. A startling cut-to-black ramps up the foreboding.

For Emmett has been raised in relatively liberal Chicago, a bright, smiling, upbeat boy who is blind to the racial hatred of the conservative South. He doesn’t know what Mamie knows: that if he doesn’t toe the segregated line, he will be killed. 

The inventive visual style asks us to observe and witness this remarkable woman

When the tragic news is delivered to Mamie, Chukwu underpins the shock of the moment with a dolly reverse zoom that makes it seem like the ground is shifting beneath her feet. This technical flair enhances the storytelling in a way that’s more than matched by Deadwyler’s towering performance. As crime story gives way to courtroom drama, the actress brilliantly conveys this mother’s anger and dignity, as she struggles to hold back the tears.

Deadwyler shows us the essential truth of being Black in 1950s America: that it was a tightwire, living-on-tenterhooks ordeal. Frighteningly – and this may be Till’s most vital message – it’s a reality that exists even today.

In US theaters now and UK cinemas Jan 6.

Written by
Sahir Avik D’souza

Cast and crew

  • Director:Chinonye Chukwu
  • Screenwriter:Chinonye Chukwu, Keith Beauchamp, Michael Reilly
  • Cast:
    • Danielle Deadwyler
    • Jalyn Hall
    • Whoopi Goldberg
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