Till: A Hollywood portrait of Black misery

Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley.
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When Dave Schmauch of the New York FSP branch called me and offered me the gig to write a review for Till (2022), I had a physical negative reaction. A mix of heartburn and full-body tetanus. The fact was that I already had resolved to avoid the movie ever since it was announced for Apple. The idea of some filmmaker I didn’t know bastardizing the horror that was Emmett Till’s murder repulsed me. But Dave is a good friend of mine, and I figured it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss a film based on gut feeling alone.

Man, I wish I had.

Objectively, Till is a well-acted, well-produced movie with a passable script, excellent set design and solid (albeit boilerplate) camerawork. The talent and budget are on obvious display. What wasn’t obvious to me was the movie’s target.

Emmett Till’s murder is one of the most egregious examples of racial injustice in American history; very few people are ignorant about its occurrence or its significance in the battle for Black civil rights. The creators and proponents of Till will argue that the movie lifts up Mamie Till-Mobley as more than just the mother of a victim and shines light on her tremendous life of activism. And while her story has indeed been overlooked, Till is not the platform it claims to be.

The movie dedicates a good ninety/ninety-five percent of its runtime to Emmett Till’s murder and the subsequent trial in which his killers are ruled innocent. The space in between is filled with actors wailing, high-handed dialogue about “the struggle,” and typical Hollywood schmaltz we see in all Oscar bait films. (Note: As someone who’s dedicated a good portion of their adult life to police accountability activism and have stood by grieving mothers who mourned the loss of their sons to murderous cops, watching Danielle Deadwyler perform grief on camera was infuriating.)

The final scene shows the character of Mamie Till-Mobley on stage speaking to the national plight of the Negro. The real woman’s career of activism is shown on a single screen of text before the credits roll; there’s nothing present in Till that one couldn’t learn from a Wikipedia summary.

An even more disappointing aspect of the film is how zero effort was put into linking Mamie Till-Mobley’s struggle to ongoing incidents of racially-charged murders going on today. With the high-profile police murders of victims like Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, the connection would have been appropriate and almost necessary. It honestly baffles me how the producers, writers, director, and anyone else involved in creating the film didn’t come to this conclusion if justice was their true goal.

So if the movie doesn’t shed any significant light on Till-Mobley’s legacy or point to contemporary issues, the question remains: why was it ever made?

I believe the answer lies with the current “controversy” surrounding Till being snubbed during Academy Award season. But the Academy has never been a proponent of social change or justice ever. Why do awards matter if this movie is about spreading awareness?

The simple truth of the thing is that Till was made to generate profit and advance careers. If you want to really learn about Mamie Till-Mobley’s life, watch the recent PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till. If you want to see a drama about underrepresented Black pain, watch the phenomenal Moonlight. If you want a historical drama that directly implicates racial injustice today, watch BlacKkKlansman. Other more impactful contemporary movies about Black and class struggle include 13th and Sorry to Bother You, both with way more heart, information and scope than Till.

There is a term for media that exploits human suffering as a crutch for storytelling: misery porn. And I don’t think misery porn deserves the kind of accolades Till hopes to garner merely by existing.

Lee Gill is an African American writer and an organizer involved with the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, a NYC-based grassroots movement for police accountability. Send comments to: writerlelandgill@gmail.com.

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