There are some movies that are tough to watch because the makers of it have little regard for decency. Their only intent is to titillate with gore, sexuality, and/or violence in a cynical quest to make money by appealing to our basest senses. Then there are movies that are tough to watch that have some of this questionable material, but should be seen. This describes the film I watched this weekend, Till. Our society today seems so permissive of things that back in the 1950s, when the events portrayed in this movie took place, would not have been tolerated. At the same time, it was a period of extreme injustice. In this Catholic reviewer’s eyes, we have traded racism for promiscuity and other darker manifestations of the id because, apparently, culture is about providing an outlet for these impulses. I cannot hold a candle to the kind of struggle that Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) found herself thrust into when her beloved son, Emmet “Bobo” Till (Jalyn Hall), was brutally murdered in Mississippi. There are those who would say that I am actually trying to contravene freedom by speaking out against the veritable smut that Hollywood often produces. There is a line in today’s movie about how when the kinds of injustices happen that allow for anyone, including an African American boy in the 1950s, to be killed and the perpetrators to go free, that the United States is not living up to its ideals. I believe in that statement whole-heartedly. Yet it has been the better part of a century since the death of Emmet Till, and are we truly better off as a society that permits (please note that I am not using a legal argument) a movie like Blonde?
Okay, Till has me a bit fired up if you cannot already tell. It begins peacefully enough. It is the summer of 1955, and Mamie and Bobo are driving to downtown Chicago to purchase items for Emmet’s upcoming trip to Mississippi to visit his cousins. I used his nickname there to emphasize the closeness of their relationship. He is excited, but she is apprehensive. Her family is from that part of the country, so she knows how African Americans in the South are treated and viewed, particularly in Mississippi. As such, she emphasizes to her son, who has only known the relative racial peace of Chicago (though by no means perfect), that things are different in the South. His teenaged dismissiveness worries her, but her mother, Alma Carthan (Whooi Goldberg), is insistent that Emmet get to go. Thus, Mamie bids a found, though anxious, farewell to Emmet as he boards the train. Indeed, Emmet seems to have an almost immediate education of how out of phase is life in the Mississippi Delta to that in Chicago. He is put to work with his cousins helping to pick cotton. Surrounded by his family, after a day in the field they stop at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market for refreshments. To Emmet, the white woman working the register, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), looks like a movie star, and he softly whistles at her as he leaves. Incensed, Carolyn goes to her car to get a gun while Emmet and his cousins speed away. Some days go by, and they believe that the worst is past until one night, two white men with guns come to Emmet’s aunt and uncle’s, Elizabeth (Keisha Tillis) and Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson), house to demand that they turn over Emmet. With protests, they force their way in and drag out Emmet. They then take him elsewhere and begin beating and torturing him. Mamie’s worries seem to be coming true when she learns that Emmet has been taken. Through family connections, she gets in contact with representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to lobby with the governors of Illinois and Mississippi to begin searching for Emmet. Doing so, the story begins to become national news. Unfortunately, their efforts bring back only Emmet’s bloated and mutilated corpse. Mamie demands that the body be brought back, and must face her son’s battered visage. It is at this point that she makes the decision to show his image to the world, not only allowing photographers to capture the grizzly scars but to also have an open casket viewing for the whole community to see what has happened to her son. The next question is obvious, but seemingly pointless in 1950s Mississippi: what about justice for Emmet Till? The white prosecutors decide Mamie’s testimony could hold some weight. To do so, though, would mean having to go to Mississippi and face potential assassination. With some objections from her family and friends, she decides to go, accompanied by her father, John Carthan (Frankie Faison). Once there, she is protected by members of the NAACP, namely Medgar Evars (Tosin Cole). The court case is a sham, of course. The judge, jury, lawyers, lawyers, most of the spectators, and many of the witnesses are all white. The innocent verdict for the offenders is all but assured. So, why testify? Because it gives an African American woman the opportunity to speak her mind and have it on the record. Of course, the last word is given to Carolyn, who begins to weave this lurid tall tale of an event that took place at night, not during the day as previously seen, of a much more physical altercation. Mamie does not stick around to listen to the nonsense, and hears the judgement of innocence in the car on the way back to where she had been staying. The trial was not the point. It gave her the platform to speak out on injustices, and one of the last images we see of Mamie is her giving a speech to a rally in Harlem.
History and society owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mamie, and Till does a good job of showing why this is the case, despite my cynicism in the introduction. One of the several interesting aspects of this portrayal is an admission she makes at the end. Living in Chicago, she says, made her somewhat ambivalent to the things occurring in the South at that time. What happened to her son was a lynching. When we think of that word, we tend to associate it mostly with hanging, and also sometimes adding in the burning of the victim. Lynchings are almost as old as the United States, and have as their origin an arcane Virginia law from the 1780s that permitted extra-legal punishments in moments certain individuals felt them necessary. They were originally used by colonists in dealing with Tories (people loyal to the English Crown during the American Revolution), but soon came to be applied to slaves. The form of torture is not the important part. It is the spectacle. Whites used lynching as a way to terrorize African Americans into submission. If you did the kinds of things that one did to Emmet Till, the idea is that no other black person would get out of line. What is great about the movie is that it sort of takes this same logic and uses it to broadcast an atrocity. In the film, Medgar Evers (himself the victim of an assassination years later) credits the photograph of Emmet’s swollen face as changing opinions. It was a wake-up call, and much of the civil rights movement of the next few decades would be the result.
Another aspect of Mamie’s incredible character on display in Till is her faith. During her final speech, she starts by giving honor to God who is the source of her strength. This is not some idle remark made because it reflects the historical record. There are many moments throughout where her relationship with God is on display, including when you see her on her knees praying. That scene stands out for me because, given that it is before she learns that Emmet has been killed, she is undoubtedly asking God for her son’s safe return. I can imagine some, particularly those who have struggled with their faith, watching this movie, seeing her prayer seemingly go unanswered, and having that confirm their worst suspicions about the Almighty. For this Catholic, such a train of thought is almost as tragic as what happens to Emmet. I am sure Mamie would understand this when I say that God knows what it is like to lose a Son. He sent Jesus to die. There is a plan and a purpose for everything, though. Granted, it is more difficult to see when we are grieving. Jesus’ act launched the Faith that we know today. Emmet’s death further galvanized the civil rights movement. Mamie came around to seeing her son’s passing in this light. One of the last things she tells Emmet before the casket is closed is that he belongs to the world now. It is said like a prayer. One of the ways we overcome grief is by finding some way of transcending it. That is what God can help us with, and I feel that God spoke to her in that moment.
It is not easy to look at Emmet Till. But, life is like that sometimes. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that we are not built for comfort. Greatness is seldom achieved without great struggle. This is on the mind of Mamie, and she handles it with God’s grace. I think about this every time I attack an awful movie, wondering whether anyone pays attention. This is all, meaning this review in general, a long way of saying that I wish Hollywood made better films like this one. I think the world would be a better place for it.