“The lynching of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us
anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all.”
Mamie Till-Bradley in Till
The name Till is one that most Americans and many people around the world will recognize from their civil rights history lessons. In 1955, while visiting family, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was brutally beaten and murdered for allegedly flirting with and whistling at a married white woman near Money, Mississippi. His bloated body was later found in the Tallahatchie River.
I must admit that when I first heard about the film Till, it immediately sparked my curiosity. Yes, I thought. The heinous crime that caused a media frenzy and galvanized the civil rights movement needs to be brought to new generations. But wait. We live in an age of trigger warnings (statements that alert readers or viewers to potentially disturbing content) and audiences with a heightened sensitivity to violence. So how can film director Chinonye Chukwu draw viewers to movie theaters and simultaneously do justice to the brutality of that crime?
It also intrigued me that Chukwu placed Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, in the film’s center. If she’s mentioned at all in American history textbooks, it’s mainly to recognize the role she played in the decision to show the world what Southern hatred looked like. She was the driving force to ensure an open casket at Emmett Till’s funeral. So what does the film reveal that most history books do not?
To answer those questions, I did what I always do when delving into a history-oriented film. I took the opportunity to start my research and bought Timothy B. Tyson’s nonfiction book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Instead of doing a proper film review that would exceed this blog’s scope, I’d like to concentrate on a few aspects that directly relate to the questions posed above.
First, Chukwu didn’t capture the brutal beating and lynching directly on film. The scene leading up to Emmett’s kidnapping foreshadows the events that follow; screams are heard in the distance. It’s probably a wise choice since – as gruesome as the post-lynching photographs of Emmett Till circulating on the internet are with a face disfigured beyond recognition – they do not actually do justice to the violence he endured. View at your own caution: https://fatwts.umbc.edu/the-power-of-a-photograph-the-lynching-of-emmett-till/ According to Tyson, the funeral director who prepared Emmett Till’s body took – against the wishes of Mamie – a few liberties to make the sight of Till’s remains more bearable. Neither the iconic photo mentioned above nor the movie Till show the ca 3‑inch by 2.5‑inch chuck of the skull that had fallen out or the “dangling eyeball” that had been forced out of its socket.
Second, instead of concentrating on the violence and risking the disgust of the viewers, Chukwu focuses a significant portion of the film on reaction shots and scenes to underline the severe trauma the lynching caused not only Mamie and other family members but also other Blacks and some of the funeral attendees. Violence to one Black person may evoke the cultural memory of ca. 4,000 lynchings of Black people in the U.S. and other acts of violence, such as the whippings and disfigurement of enslaved Blacks, the rapes of Black women by white men, and acts of police brutality against Blacks. Till illuminates this concept brilliantly.
The historically accurate scenes include one in which Mamie, too weak to walk, is brought in a wheelchair to pick up her son’s sealed casket. She throws herself on the coffin surrounded by a mob of journalists and the camera lenses of dozens of photographers. Another depicts the first moments in the Chicago morgue after the coffin is unsealed. Mamie’s insistence on witnessing her son’s remains is an act of pure defiance. After a short period of horror, Mamie composes herself when asked to identify the body, tenderly inspecting and touching her son from the feet upwards. These are acts of deep maternal love. Others depict the seemingly never-ending lines of moaning, shocked, fainting, and/or wailing people passing Emmett Till’s remains in his casket with a sealed glass top.
These powerful sequences starkly contrast with the sterility of the trial attended by Mamie against the wishes of her family and advisors. Despite the evidence, the accused are acquitted, which sets Mamie on her life’s mission to preserve her son’s memory, create awareness, and further the causes of the civil rights movement. Mamie’s resilience and determination are inspiring as she is shown delivering speeches to large crowds.
All in all, Chukwu has fleshed out the Till story: “A lot of people are saying that they thought they knew the story, but actually you don’t.” I couldn’t agree more.
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