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Director: Chininye Chukwu (USA). Year of Release: 2022

August 1955, Chicago Illinois. A woman is driving, singing along to doo-wop on the car radio. In the passenger seat, her son sings the harmonies. They both look blissfully happy, but Mamie is worried. Her 14-year old boy Emmett (known as Bo or Bobo) is planning to visit family members in the South, and 1950s Mississippi is not a welcoming place for Black folk. Mamie repeatedly tells her son that white folk treat Negroes differently down South, and he should not antagonise them.

Having said this, Till is not a film which pushes the myth that the North was a paradise of racial equality. While visiting a department store to buy shoes, the store guide advises Mamie to go to the basement. “Do you say that to all your customers?” she asks, who has a plush job in the police department (“the only Black person in her department” explains her father, proudly) and a nice house. Racism still exists in the North, but it has a more civilised veneer.

Nonetheless, things in the Deep South are more extreme. There is a pointed moment on the train that Bo and his cousins are taking the train to Money, Mississippi. At a certain point on the journey, somewhere around the Mason-Dixon line, all the Black passengers are obliged to move to a separate carriage. After they arrive, Bo looks incredulously at his family picking cotton and cowering with fear whenever a white person comes close. This is not how things work in Chicago.

It is now over 60 years since Bob Dylan wrote The Death of Emmett Till, which was the in for people like me for what happens next. Briefly put, Bo goes into the corner store to buy some sweets and, using his usual swaggering cheek, compliments the woman behind the counter. Later, when she lives the store, he gives her a wolf whistle. Now I don’t want to condone wolf whistles in any way, but what happens next is something of an over-reaction.

First, the woman goes for a gun, and starts firing at the fleeing Bo and his friends. Things die down for a couple of days, possibly because the local rednecks can’t tell their Black neighbours apart. Then in the middle of the night, a group of white men (plus some Black employees who they have paid to accompany them) knock on the door of the house where Bo is staying, waving guns around. This is the last time in the film that we see him alive.

This has been a fairly long set up, but we’ve only just got to the meat of the film – Mamie’s fight to avenge her son’s death. She insists on putting his battered corpse on display in an open casket. Whereas the film, quite sensibly, refuses to sensationalise Bo’s murder, which takes place behind closed doors, the funeral does not allow anyone to look away from what has happened. Advised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mamie is up for a fight.

If you thought that the court would deliver an open-and-shut guilty verdict, you’re failing to reckon with the justice system in the Southern States within living memory of many people. It is not just that the jurors are all white men – the permeating racism is much more systemic than this. Everyone, from the judge to the media, put Mamie on trial. She does not even feel able to bring her unmarried partner down to Mississippi with her, as they’d only use his presence to paint her as a scarlet woman.

Till has received some strange reactions, from those who see it as purely an educational film for white people to those who complain that it’s telling a story that everyone knows already (briefly to those two points: (1) Black history is not just about remembering the glorious struggle, but also why people were struggling in the first place, and (2) the story of Emmett Till is hardly on the key syllabuses in the States, and barely discussed in the rest of the world.

Yet this is a story that must not be erased from history. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the racist murders which provoked it, we cannot complacently assume that this is a story which belongs in a different time and a different place. There is an intake of breath during the end credits, when we are told that an anti-lynching law named after Till was passed in the USA – in March 2022, less than a year ago.

But is the film Any Good? Well, largely, yes. It is particularly strong at showing how a brutal murder affects a grieving mother and turns her into a militant. There is one particular scene of Mamie being interrogated in court when for a protracted amount of time, the camera focuses exclusively on her face. As the prosecutor insinuates that she is somehow to blame for her son’s death, we see every gesture, every moment of hurt and indignation that crosses her face.

But the film does has it’s weaknesses. While it is good at handling melodrama, the pace is slightly awry, and it does little to break normal cinematic conventions – first for period dramas, later for court reconstruction. While not exactly Worthy but Dull, you do get the slight feeling that it isn’t doing much new. Till would make an excellent afternoon tv movie. It accurately and gracefully documents what happened and makes you feel angry, but somehow does not express enough anger itself.

Nonetheless, this is an important intervention, a film that shows that even defeats can bring a struggle forward. Mamie leaves the courthouse early, saying that she already knew the verdict. In Mississippi in 1955, she did, but while so little has changed from one perspective, from another we have won, at least, a semblance of justice. The fact that we have got even this far has a lot thank the resilience of people like Mamie Till-Mobley. For all its faults, Till is able to celebrate this fact.

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