Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Mon Oct 31, 2022 8:05 am 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4587
Location: California/NYC


The famous lynching and a memorable performance

As Justin Chang wrote in his review in the Los Angeles Times, the lynching murder of fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 is "one of the cornerstone tragedies of the civil rights movement." He had been seen off by his widowed mother Mamie in Chicago and traveled to the share-cropping Black town of Money, Mississippi to visit cousins in the summertime. Chnonye Chikwu's movie deals with an event already well known through books and films, now finally 70 years later remembered in the 2022 Emmett Till Antilynching Act. The film carefully avoids being a horror story, a political biopic, or a tale of martyrdom while skirting these things, when as Justin Chang says Chikwu "undermines the template of the prestige biographical drama she only appears to be making." The way it does this is through its beauty, its calm, its reverence, its relentlessness, and especially the stunning and powerful performance of of Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, whose story above all this is. This is an extraordinary performance of rare concentration and power. The film is not an easy watch, even though it spares us its grimmest details. One of the best things about it is the way at some points it just pauses to sit for a moment with its feelings, or those of its characters. It allows Deadwyler's performance to hold us. It does, but somewhat at the cost of the film as a whole.

Chikyu showed what she could do in the way of relentlessness in Clemency (ND/NF 2019), her film indictment of American capital punishment through the point of view of a Black woman prison warden. That Sundance-prize-winning film also showed the writer-director's skill working with actors even as I called it "one long, loud wail that might be more ennobling and memorable as an aria." Clemency struggled in darkness. Till walks out into the light. The central event isn't the boy's murder: it's Mamie, his mother's, insistence that his mutilated body, with his unrecognizable face, be brought home to her in Chicago and then displayed in an open casket for mourners, press, and public alike to see - out in the light. The scene where Mamie privately examines her son's body Justin Chang describes as a "long, artful and awful sequence" whose "strange mix of the tactful and the unsparing" is one that "exemplifies the sheer difficulty of the challenge Chukwu has set herself" in telling this story.

We cannot know exactly what happened that day in the little Black-catering local grocery store where Emmett till encountered the proprietor Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett, whom Justin Chang calls "suitably loathsome") and may have complimented her as looking like a movie star and later outside whistled at her in admiration. But we glimpse this so that later at the trail of her two "brutish" husband and brother-and-law who came (with three Black employees) to take Emmett away and lynched him we know that Bryant's accusation of the boy's physically assaulting her is a baldfaced lie. Because this is Mamie's story and also to avoid further martyrizing the African American public, Chukwu has made the decision not to show the lynching of Emmett itself, only the rushing in, the menacing of the relatives, the taking away of the victim, and then, in the distance his muffled screams.

The body of Emmett is important too, and the face, when it's brought to Chicago - when you consider it, a remarkable event, under the circumstances and since it was found in a river - after it is left with Mamie to look at. Here the camera gradually gives us a view of a limb and then the face, but only briefly. More important is the speech of Mamie when she goes south and testifies in the trial - also remarkable, if ultimately meaningless - and describes the intimacy with which a mother knows her son.

Likewise as Chang pointed out, biographical dramas depend or some audience familiarity with their "real-life subject." And so we don't have to be told though Mamie carefully schooled her son that in Money, Mississippi, Emmett would have to be extremely careful how he behaved toward any white person and be able to bow down on the ground to apologize in abject humility if he offended in any way. But Emmett was "an infectiously high-spirited kid," indeed, " the most gregarious of jokesters" (and one might add, as big for his age), further excited and distracted by being on holiday in a new place. He did not know yet that he had entered into Hell: the Jim Crow-era South.

But as important as the southern sequences are, including the one of the courtroom, it's what happens in Chicago that counts in this film, away from Hell, in the land of hope extended. Chang comments on the beauty of the images, drenched with color and light, and argues that the "ravishing tenderness of Chukwu’s gaze" mounts "a visual argument," saying that before the tragedy ad "even afterward" "Mamie’s home courses and sometimes overflows with love and life." And this is expressed in the "treasurable" few scenes of Whoppi Goldberg as Mamie's mother Alma and in Jalyn Hall's "boisterous" performance as Emmett. This glow of the gaze combines with the stillness and lingering at moments, especially on Danielle Deadwyler's face at key moments when the actress at once projects and embodies the profound emotions Mamie is going through.

Why should you go to see this film? Say rather why you should not. People are still (perhaps forever?)staying away from movies in droves, and one can't urge you to endanger yourself. But it is important and essential to experience that "gaze" through our gaze, to see without looking away and - through someone was looking at his phone periodically all through, this compulsion ever-stronger - the way that happens is in a movie theater, with nothing between you and the big screen. Do you remember when you did that? When you could not look away for two hours? This is the Chinonye Chukwu experience. And you go through it here for two reasons: to experience racism and the reply - Mamie's courage and defiance and her turn from lonely mourning to empowered NAACP activism; and to witness the extraordinary performance of Danielle Deadwyler. But we know from our earliest experience, all that makes a movie riveting doesn't necessarily make it good, and there are elements in Till and perhaps in Chikwu's work, that lack a sense of the big picture and drift toward conventionality. The performance, and the radiant beauty amid the squalor remain, and should be seen as the NYFF audience first saw it, in a great movie hall, with wonderful sound and an attentive audience, keeping still.

Till, 130 mns., debuted at the New York Film Festival Oct. 1, 2022 and showed at a few other festivals including Rio, Mill Valley, the Hamptons, and London (BFI). Limited US theatrical release Oct. 14 and wider release Oct. 28, 2022. Metacritic rating: 78%. Screened for this review at the Grand Lake Theatre, Oakland, California Oct. 30.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Google [Bot] and 24 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group