“Be small,” Mamie Till-Bradley (Danielle Deadwyler) tells her son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), as he prepares for a visit with his cousins in the Mississippi Delta. It’s not advice one expects any mother to impart to her son, but it is more than justified in this instance. Emmett Till, called Bobo by his family, was a chewy 14-year-old from Chicago. In 1955, that city, as an early scene depicting a mother-and-son trip to a department store depicts, was hardly immune to American racism. And yet it was an enlightened world away from Mississippi.
Four days after Emmett journeyed to be with his cousins, an offhand remark to a white lady in a grocery store led to a series of horrific events. Emmett was dragged out of his relatives’ home, tortured and shot in the head before his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
Working with co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, Chukwu does not depict Emmett Till’s lynching – so a broader (and younger) audience can see the film.
The violence, however, is writ large in every harrowing shot of Danielle Deadwyler’s face. Whether the Watchmen and The Harder They Fall star is falling to her knees as she receives her son’s coffin, or shakily, primly selecting what to wear to meet the press, she forms an indelible image of unimaginable pain.
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Cate Blanchett is fantastic in Tár, and she’s currently the Oscar favourite, but she won’t move you to tears like Deadwyler.
Against the distress, Chukwu and Deadwyler find purpose in Mamie’s transformation into a hugely influential civil rights activist
Grief rings from every corner of the film. It’s in every calibrated, dignified outfit designed by costume designer Marci Rodgers. It’s etched into the crumpled posture of Whoopi Goldberg playing the grandmother who encouraged Emmett to journey to the Deep South. It sounds out from Abel Korzeniowski’s score.
As orchestrated by Mamie, scenes of collective mourning around Emmett’s casket feel strikingly contemporary, as if transmitted through subsequent decades.
Against the distress, Chukwu and Deadwyler find purpose in Mamie’s transformation into a hugely influential civil rights activist. This is a woman’s account of striving for racial justice in the era of Jim Crow laws. Tellingly, Jayme Lawson playing Myrlie Evers gets more airtime than her activist husband Medgar.