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Political Film Society

Political Film Review #662

TILL HONORS THE WOMAN WHO STARTED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

The film Till begins on August 1955. The initial focus is on a happy African American extended family living in Chicago. Mamie Till-Mobley (played by Danielle Deadwyler) is the only Black working in an air force office. Her son, Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), is 14 years old. A self-assured adolescent, he is interested in seeing the Mississippi roots of the family, as relatives still live in rural parts of the state as cotton sharecroppers. Mamie warns Emmett that life in Mississippi is dangerous for Blacks. She does not provide examples of dos and donts, though an incident in a Chicago department store should have prepared him to be extra cautious. While plans for his trip are being drawn up, news of the recent death of civil rights leader Lamar Smith in Mississippi are on her mind. A widower, she sends off Emmett with a ring of his father, who died in combat during World War II.

After Emmett’s train ride, he is greeted by relatives in Money, Mississippi, and even helps out the family by picking cotton. One day he joins his friends resting around a small store. He decides to buy candy in the store. He is impressed with the beauty of Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the White woman who is the sole proprietor of the store. After paying her for the candy, he wolf-whistles at her. She then shuts the store, goes to her truck, and gets out a gun while the Blacks depart in a hurry. That night, two men knock on the door, grab Emmett, and his whereabouts are unknown until his body is found dead a few days later in the Tallahatchie River.

After much sadness over his fate, Mamie resists an NAACP proposal to focus on making lynching a federal crime and insists that Emmett’s body should be sent to Chicago for a proper burial. When the body arrives, however, her son’s face is nearly indistinguishable, clearly due to massive beatings. She correctly realizes that pictures of her son’s face will galvanize support for civil rights and his face is soon on the cover of Ebony magazine. Responding to pressure, Mississippi authorities arrest the two vigilantes who killed Emmett, and a trial is scheduled. Mamie decides to testify about her son at the trial. But rumor is spreading that the entire incident was staged by NAACP to advance their agenda, and one person will say so to the jury, which will undoubtedly consist of 12 White men, so the verdict is predictable. Mamie goes to Mississippi. She visits the various places where her son lived, the store (now closed) where he bought candy, and the river where his body was found. Filming is in Greenwood.

Her testimony in court is eloquent. But after the jury is sent out of the room, the woman who complained about her son makes up a story about his alleged sexual advances, whereupon Mamie decides to leave before the end of the trial. Returning to Chicago as an international celebrity, she talks before audiences about the principle that if one person can be mistreated with impunity, then nobody in the world is safe. She has proved that civil rights will be advanced by focusing on humanistic elements that affect the emotions of all decent people, Black or White.

Titles at the end provide more information about her life and give her credit for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as an investigative body and made voter intimidation a crime. Also noted is the fact that lynching finally become a federal crime in March 2022, a bill known as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Not mentioned is that Carolyn Bryant is still alive and has not been brought to justice. After being acquitted, the two murderers confessed to the crime during interviews with Look magazine and profited by being paid $4,000.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the Political Film Society has nominated Till as the best film on human rights of 2022.  MH

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