NYFF 2022 review: Till (Chinonye Chukwu)

“The resulting film is a standard issue, by the numbers, assembly-line glossy Hollywood biopic that any number of filmmakers could have made.”

The horrific kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago, by white supremacists in 1955 Mississippi, and their subsequent acquittal by a white male jury is one of the seminal moments within the Civil Rights Movement in America. It sparked outrage across the country and galvanized black Americans to fight for their rights and end segregation. As such, it is a very important historical event and most Americans will typically encounter this story during their schooling. One could also learn about it by scanning the Wikipedia entries for Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Unfortunately, doing so would be tantamount to watching this film as it is nothing more than a visual illustration of those pages – something you might see in animated form on YouTube.

That this story needs to be told (and repeated) is beyond dispute, but surprisingly there hasn’t been a major motion picture made about it yet. After years of false starts a crackerjack all-star team was assembled to bring the story to life, led by filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu. Chukwu proved an auspicious choice since the film was to focus on a black woman – Till-Mobley – and because Chukwu had already addressed issues of justice in her previous acclaimed film Clemency (2019). Joining her were producer Whoopi Goldberg and writer Keith Beauchamp, who had extensively investigated the Till story. It is then doubly disappointing that the resulting film is a standard issue, by the numbers, assembly-line glossy Hollywood biopic that any number of filmmakers could have made.

The film cannily begins in the more enlightened North (Chicago to be exact) where Till and his mother are making preparations for him to travel with his cousins to Mississippi. The South, she warns him starkly, is very different from the North, and he must behave in a subservient way to the white people there out of caution. It then proceeds to show in Mississippi the crucial store encounter between Till and the white woman who accused him of being inappropriate, Carolyn Bryant. The details of this encounter are still disputed today but the film opts for a straight portrayal that evades the historical murkiness. After that there is the kidnapping of Till by Bryant’s husband and his accomplices, and this is where the film employs its two most interesting gambits.

Firstly, Chukwu has made the key decision to not show the torture and murder of Till, instead cutting from the kidnapping to his bloated corpse that is fished out of the river. There are a few seconds of screams heard from a barn but the horrific crime happens entirely off-screen. She said she made this choice to avoid showing the desecration of black bodies on screen. She is not Quentin Tarantino, who lingered on the abuse of black bodies at length in his Django Unchained (2012). While this choice has intellectual heft – screen violence always needs to find the balance between “entertainment” and narrative function – it does sap the film of some of the provocative power it might have had. There is a judicious way to do this – as demonstrated by a black filmmaker like Steve McQueen in his 12 Years a Slave (2013) – without being exploitative.

Secondly, because she is a black filmmaker, she is able to do something a white filmmaker couldn’t, which is to implicate some other black people in this unconscionable act. Bryant’s accomplices for Till’s kidnapping and presumably torture and murder are shown to include other black men in the film. Till-Mobley wonders aloud about it but it is dealt with only summarily, without any discussion of its implications or what it means.

The trial sequences have a banal Lifetime feel to them and the foregone conclusion of the murderers’ acquittal comes only as a shrug rather than a sense of crushing defeat as it did even in a fictional story like To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), a film inspired by the Till trial. It speaks to the total failure of Chukwu to imbue this important story with any sort of urgency or visceral impact. Her interest seems to lie almost entirely in Till-Mobley’s emotional experience and that is why she leans very heavily on her star Danielle Deadwyler to carry the film. Deadwyler is filmed almost entirely in close-ups, usually in prolonged scenes of distress, either crying or shouting or doing both at once, even co-opting Viola Davis’ signature flowing snot during some scenes. These kinds of histrionics are catnip for awards-giving bodies and Deadwyler will inevitably find herself in the thick of kudo-contention during fall season, but her performance offers little in the way of insight, instead only attempting to overwhelm you with the extent of her sorrow.

The relentless close-ups give the film a distinctly televisual feel, as does the modest costume and production design – all making it seem like a perfunctory Sunday historical lesson on your local TV station. Abel Korzeniowski’s busy score works overtime to bring urgency to the film, blaring his ostinatos over scene transitions to create an artificial sense of momentum with only limited success.

Noble intentions do not a worthy film make. Despite its pedigree, the sheer anonymity of this film is hard to shake off. Nine out of ten filmmakers, regardless of race, would have delivered a film more or less like this. It is a film that lacks perspective and a point of view and instead coasts along its inoffensive trajectory towards a pat conclusion – right down to the historical information provided as text at the end. One senses that most of all Chukwu was afraid to create a scene. Her film is surprisingly tasteful and restrained where it should have been upsetting and devastating.