Till review – emotionally harrowing US civil rights drama

An award-winning performance by Danielle Deadwyler (who stole the show in 2021 The hardest They fall) lends a passionate heart to this solidly gripping and still contemporary historical drama set in 1955 and dedicated “to the life and legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley.” Revisiting the true story of the mother-turned-activist whose fight for justice proved to be the cornerstone of the emerging civil rights movement in the United States, director and co-writer Chinonye Chukwu draws a fine line between the display and discretion, laying bare stark truths without alienating large audiences (the British Board of Film Classification advice for this 12A film only warns against “disturbing images, upsetting scenes, moderate threat”) . The fact that the Emmett Till anti-lynching law was passed last year in the United States makes the subject all the more topical.

We open in sunny pastel tones that will gradually fade into darkness, and the harmonious sounds of doo-wop that turn into a nightmarish scream – a recurring motif. Grandma (Deadwyler) and her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), travel through Chicago, a metropolis where underlying racism is largely hidden under a veneer of civility. Emmett has to visit relatives in Mississippi, a prospect that terrifies Grandma. “I don’t want him to see himself the way these people are seen there,” she tells her mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg, who also co-produces), while asking her son to “be little the low “. Yet Emmett, a naive bundle of enthusiasm with gaping teeth, is unprepared for the restrictions of the segregated south, and soon falls prey to murderous thugs who come calling after dark. “It wasn’t just two white men with guns that night,” says guilt-ridden preacher Uncle Moses (John Douglas Thompson) from whose house Emmett is kidnapped. “He was any white man who would rather see a dead nigger than breathe the same air as him. »

What follows is a moving mix of courtroom drama, social activism and personal tragedy as Grandma decides, “I want America to bear witness” to the torture inflicted on her child. In a bold move that pays spectacular dividends, Chukwu keeps the murder itself off-screen, instead focusing our attention on Granny’s reactions, making her the center of the story. There’s an extraordinarily moving scene in which Grandma collapses as Emmett’s crated body is alighted from the New Orleans town train, followed by a long sequence in which we watch her horrified by the revelation injuries that left her child virtually unidentifiable. . A symphony of emotion plays in Deadwyler’s expressive eyes as tears of anguish give way to steely resolve, the birth of which we feel like we’re witnessing even on screen. This scene is then echoed as the mourners walk past Emmett’s open casket, and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camera focuses on their reactions – some appalled, some puzzled, some stoically hardened in a world in which such atrocities are all too common.

It says a lot about Chukwu’s storytelling powers that she manages to make the gross injustices of later legal proceedings look like victory, even when the law itself obscenely fails. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Chukwu’s previous feature film, Clemency (2019), a prison drama (for which Alfre Woodard should have been nominated for an Oscar) focusing on the toll the death penalty takes on everyone – from prisoners to guards, chaplains, lawyers and the rest of the world. In both of these films, Chukwu asks us to look beyond individual legal outcomes and see the bigger picture – to draw strength from tragedy and find hope even in despair.

Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, whose recent credits include Frances O’Connor’s non-biopic Brontë Emily, does a lot of the emotional work, whether it’s setting a menacing note of modernity when reprising period needledrops or orchestrating the psychodramas that play out in the heads of the characters. At times, the score can feel a little overloaded, as if it’s cluttering up the proceedings with its declarative, surging, swirling strings. By contrast, Deadwyler keeps things in check, his nuanced performance hardly needing any orchestrated reinforcement.

Source: www.theguardian.com


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