Just over a month ago, Netflix came out with a hotly-anticipated Marilyn Monroe biopic titled Blonde. I’m not reviewing that one. I got an hour into that movie, and I spent the whole time thinking about the far more compelling online discourse surrounding the film. Sitting through two and a half hours of that picture just to write up a review and stick my neck into that discourse seemed like too much effort for a no-win proposition.
I refer to the greater online discourse surrounding the ethics of biopics. All throughout the recent trend of “true crime” podcasts and Oscar-bait biopics, there’s been no small measure of controversy as to whether such features are sincere efforts at honoring their subjects or cynical ploys to cash in on them. This is an especially crucial question regarding productions made without the blessing, creative input, or remuneration of the subjects and estates involved.
The controversy understandably hit a fever pitch with Blonde, as Marilyn Monroe was quite famously a sexual icon sculpted and prematurely broken by the Hollywood system and she had virtually no agency in her own career or likeness. Furthermore, her estate is now owned by a nameless, faceless, and extremely litigious corporate enterprise, and Monroe herself has no living relatives willing or qualified to speak on her behalf. With all of that in mind, there’s a very serious question as to whether an A-list talent imitating her on a big-budget Oscar-bait picture is the most tasteful and appropriate way to honor Monroe’s memory and learn from her untimely passing.
(Quick reminder: A Whitney Houston biopic is coming out next month, so get ready for Round 2.)
But on the other hand, we’ve got Emmett Till.
When Till’s mutilated remains were brought back home to Chicago, his surviving loved ones published photographs of the corpse and held an open casket funeral for the entire city. His family moved Heaven and Earth to make sure the whole world knew who Emmett Till was and what happened to him. His surviving relatives wanted EVERYONE to hear his story with the message that if this unspeakable travesty could happen to such a bright and humorous and harmless young boy, it could happen to any person of color in America. As such, I’d argue that a biopic about Emmett Till is on much firmer ground, regarding the aforementioned discourse.
All of that being said, Till is still a dramatization of the Emmett Till murder and its immediate aftermath. With the debatable exception of MLK’s assassination, we’re talking about the most infamous lynching in USA history, the black trauma by which all others are measured. And the film was directed/co-written/exec produced by Chinonye Chukwu, the black female filmmaker who previously made fucking Clemency. (If you missed out on that harrowing little movie about the ethics of the death penalty, see my write-up here.) On top of that, she co-wrote the film with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, who had previously crafted an Emmett Till documentary feature in 2005. I feel compelled to add that the film was made under Orion Pictures, which has made a concerted effort at spotlighting filmmakers of marginalized demographics ever since Alana Mayo — herself a gay black woman — was made president of the company in August 2020.
If Mayo wanted to put together a list of filmmakers with the intended message of “We’re taking on this story, we’re treating it with the heft and the dignity it deserves, and we are absolutely NOT fucking around,” I’m getting that message loud and goddamn clear. So what have we got?
Well, to start with, Emmett Till isn’t actually the protagonist here. To be clear, he’s absolutely in the movie, admirably played with naive charm and endearing humor by Jalyn Hall. What’s more, the film goes into detail about how Till liked to sing and dance and joke around as a means of living with his perpetual stutter. Most importantly, the film takes great pains in portraying Till as a child who only ever knew life in the big city of Chicago. As such, he was ill-equipped to properly understand and adapt to the racist culture of Mississippi, and that culture clash put the target on his back that ultimately killed him.
Anyway, Till is kidnapped and murdered half an hour in. This can’t really be his story, because he was killed before his story ever really got a chance to begin — that’s a huge part of the tragedy of it. Instead, our protagonist for the film is Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, here played by Danielle Deadwyler.
It would be a gross understatement to say that there’s a lot going on with Mamie and her place within the narrative. She has to live with the knowledge that she did the absolute best she could as a mother to protect her son and warn him about the dangers of the world, and it still wasn’t enough. She has to figure out what to do next and how to keep on living now that her only child is gone. (Oh, and his father died back in WWII, so she’s got that to live with as well.) Mamie has absolutely nothing left to live for except the mission of delivering justice for her son, but there’s an open question as to what’s left for her if she fails, or what she plans to do next if she succeeds.
(Side note: As a reminder, Roy Bryant and John William “J. W.” Milam openly confessed to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Emmett Till in an interview with Look Magazine. But because they’d already been acquitted of their crimes, they were protected against double jeopardy and thus were never convicted.
(Though Roy’s wife Carolyn Bryant was never tried for directly causing Till’s death, a warrant for her arrest was signed. Only in June of 2022 was the unserved arrest warrant found in a courthouse basement. The next month, a grand jury declined to reopen the case and serve the warrant. Yes, though Bryant is now pushing 90 and on end-of-life hospice care, she is indeed still alive to the best of my research.)
It’s an unfortunate fact that one verdict won’t be enough to change the system overnight, no matter which way the verdict goes. I might add that even if Mamie doesn’t care anymore whether she lives or dies, she still has loved ones who care very much about whether she lives or dies. And that’s not even getting started on anyone who might get put in danger or killed as a direct result of Mamie’s actions.
Anyway, the film makes a clear effort at showing that Till was not the first black person to be lynched, not even in recent memory. So why did Emmett Till get the benefit of nationwide publicity? Well, of course a lot of that had to do with his mother taking the bold step of making his disfigured corpse an icon of the times. More importantly, Mamie just happened to be a second cousin to Rayfield Mooty (here immortalized by Kevin Carroll), a Chicago Labor Union Leader with powerful political connections by way of the NAACP. It certainly also helped that the lynching took place while politicians were gearing up for the 1956 election, and thus eager to make a powerful public statement regarding where they stood on segregation and racial equity.
To put this in the least callous terms I know how, Emmett Till and his mother were uniquely equipped with the timing and the connections to take the story worldwide. And that was enough to get two white men in Mississippi indicted on murder charges, not to mention that it directly inspired the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the whole Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, nobody responsible for Till’s murder ever saw any kind of punishment, and we never got a federal anti-lynching law on the books until March of goddamn 2022. (Mamie Till-Mobley passed away in 2003, by the way.)
It’s tough not to feel disheartened when Mamie gave up so much of her safety and privacy and this is all she got for it. She gave her mind, body, and soul toward mobilizing every legal and political connection she had (far more than most other African-Americans of the time could’ve hoped for, I might add) toward getting justice for her son, and the best she could get was an indictment. And that’s only after she could get through her own searing heartbreak long enough to see how she and Emmett fit into the bigger picture.
Then again, it bears mentioning that this film is EXTREMELY heavy-handed. The run-up to Emmett Till’s murder is treated with self-aware foreboding on a level typically reserved for the Wayne Family on their way to the opera. White people of Chicago and Mississippi alike are played as overtly and unreservedly racist. Mamie’s climactic court testimony is presented in one tear-jerking extended take, shot in extreme close-up. When the time comes to show Emmett Till’s body, the filmmakers went all-out in recreating Till’s injuries with the best effects that modern technology could deliver.
Oh, and we’ve also got the scene in which some young white boy startles a crowd of black people with a toy gun and he gets away with no consequences. This after a black child was literally fucking tortured and killed because he tried to compliment a white woman. This is the level of subtlety and nuance offered by the film with regards to the issue of race.
I would typically object to racists being portrayed as one-dimensional and unsympathetic cartoon villains, and racism itself portrayed as an issue of strictly binary morality, but I can’t raise those same complaints here. For one thing, the film goes out of its way multiple times to show that this is only one front on a much bigger war against a deeply rooted systemic threat. To wit, the filmmakers clearly show that black people took an active role in the lynching, all workers hired by the chief culprits and thus had their own reasons for going along with it.
But my personal favorite example concerns Emmett’s uncle (Moses Wright, played by John Douglas Thompson), who was present at the kidnapping and had a shotgun in his house at the time. But he couldn’t shoot the white men — the ones who had broken into his house and held his family at gunpoint, remember — for fear of retribution from every other white man in the state. Every cop, lawyer, judge, politician, Klansman, and white vigilante in the entire South would’ve declared open season on black people because this one black man had the audacity to try and fight back. Even if the law was on his side and he was acting purely in self-defense, that pesky fact would be ignored and the lynchings would ensue en masse with impunity. Kudos to Thompson for beautifully expressing all of those points in a showstopping monologue.
More to the point, there is simply no way to underplay this. What happened to Emmett Till was an act of pure unmitigated evil. Full stop. A posse of armed men broke into someone else’s house to abduct, torture, mutilate, and murder a helpless 14-year-old boy for no reason whatsoever. There is no nuance to that, no way to sugar-coat it. There is no way for any rational person to sympathize with any monster who could do such a thing, or anyone who would try to find any justification for such a diabolical act.
We can all agree to this now, and this film is further proof that Till will go down as the unfortunate victim of a heinous act committed by irredeemable villains. And yet Till’s murderers got away with their horrific actions and died as free men.
With all of that said, riddle me this: If it’s true that history is written by the victors, what does that say about this particular victory and this particular war?
Danielle Deadwyler deserves all possible credit for carrying this film and so capably playing what must have been a soul-crushing part. Jalyn Hall is more than charismatic enough to steal the show with relatively little screentime. I must also give recognition to producer Whoopi Goldberg, gamely playing Mamie’s mother as a sympathetic voice of reason. I was also quite impressed with Frankie Faison, Kevin Carroll, and Sean Patrick Thomas, all playing pillars of strength in their own ways.
And then we have Haley Bennett in the role of Carolyn Bryant. As I’ve said many times on this blog, while her name is spelled “Haley Bennett”, it’s actually pronounced “Jennifer Lawrence said ‘no’”. That said, this might be the first time I’ve ever been grateful that Bennett got this part instead of some far more talented actor with genuine screen presence and a modicum of charisma. If ever there was a role for Bennett’s generic brand of moderately attractive mediocrity, this is it.
In summary, Till is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. The film was made and marketed as an Oscar-bait drama centered around the Emmett Till lynching and its immediate aftermath, and that’s exactly what we got, nothing more or less. We’ve seen a great many such films in recent memory that tried to milk awards prestige and box office dollars out of statements about racial trauma, some better (Selma and Hidden Figures come to mind) and some worse (Boy, Crash and Green Book haven’t aged well, have they?).
Still, of all the recent Oscar hopefuls to try and capitalize on the Civil Rights Movement (and the Civil War era, if you’d care to count those), these filmmakers were the only ones with the brass studded balls to try and take on the Emmett Till lynching. And as boilerplate as it is by modern Oscar-bait standards, the mere fact that they met those standards with such an incendiary topic is laudable, and far weaker films have gone on to far greater success. (Again, freaking Crash and Green Book.)
What it really comes down to is that Emmett Till’s story needs to be told. For his sake, for his family’s sake, and for the sake of any other person of color who may be mourned as a premature victim of racism, this story has to be told and we all have to listen. It’s a crucial story capably told by savvy filmmakers who demand us to shut up and listen. That alone should be reason enough to see this movie.
I raise a glass to Emmett Till, may he rest in power.