'Till' finds joy and restraint in a historic tragedy : Pop Culture Happy Hour When 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in 1955, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley became a voice of the civil rights movement. And now, the events surrounding his death have been dramatized in the new movie Till. Danielle Deadwyler's performance as Mamie is the focal point and standout, as she taps into the depths of a mother's grief.

'Till' finds joy and restraint in a historic tragedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1132821951/1132833516" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



When 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in 1955, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, became a voice of the civil rights movement. And now the events surrounding his death have been dramatized in the new movie "Till."


The cast includes Whoopi Goldberg as Emmett's grandmother. But Danielle Deadwyler's performance as Mamie is the focal point and standout as she taps into the depths of a mother's grief. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Till" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining Stephen and me today is Odie Henderson, The Boston Globe's newest film critic. Yay. It makes me so happy to say that. Welcome, Odie.

ODIE HENDERSON: Thank you. I have to get used to saying Boston Globe instead of rogerebert.com. But it's wonderful to be here at my first appearance as The Boston Globe's film critic. So...


HENDERSON: Let's hope it's a great one.


HARRIS: Well, thank you so much, Odie. It's great to have you.

Now, in "Till" Jalyn Hall plays Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who lives in Chicago with his mother, Mamie, played by Danielle Deadwyler. It's the summer of 1955, and Mamie sends Emmett down to Mississippi to visit with family for a while. During his trip, Emmett and his cousins go to a grocery mart in town where he briefly encounters shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant, who's played by Haley Bennett. Emmett is unaccustomed to the rules around interacting with white people in the South and events take a turn for the worse. A few days later, in the middle of the night, Emmett is kidnapped from his great uncle's home and murdered by Carolyn's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, JW Milam.

As Mamie grieves the loss of her only son, she's encouraged by civil rights leaders to speak out publicly. She allows the Black publication Jet magazine to photograph Emmett's mutilated body and insists on an open-casket funeral. The cast also includes Whoopi Goldberg as Mamie's mother, Alma, Sean Patrick Thomas as Mamie's fiance, Gene, and John Douglas Thomas (ph) as Moses Wright, Emmett's great uncle. "Till" is directed by Chinonye Chukwu who previously directed the drama "Clemency." And she co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp. It's out in theaters now.

Odie, I read your review in rogerebert.com, and I know you liked it. So tell us a little bit more about "Till" and how you felt.

HENDERSON: Well, I liked "Clemency" a lot. And I went into this with a little bit of hesitation simply because of, you know, the subject matter and that I knew that, you know, Mamie had Emmett's body on the cover of Jet. I remember seeing this as a kid. And I figured that this had the propensity of being very, very traumatic. It could be leaned into its trauma. But I had read that she said in the press release that she was not going to show any violence toward any of the Black characters in the film.

So I went in - I actually saw it. And I was stunned by - first of all, by Danielle Deadwyler's performance - but also about how she depicted showing Emmett Till's body. I was really concerned about that. And there's a shot in the movie where you don't see it, where she blocks it with the table or something. And you just see Mamie Till-Mobley leaning over the body. And then the camera, it kind of dramatically goes up. And then you see his body. They take a lot of time. She touches several parts of his body. And you get to see, you know, in all its graphic detail.

And I was of two minds in that I thought it was a little overwhelming, but No. 2, Mamie Till-Mobley got into a lot of trouble because people thought that what she was doing was exploitative as well. So it seemed like the movie had no choice but to depict this to honor the story and to honor what Mamie Till-Mobley had done.

Other than that, I thought that this lead performance was astonishing. And there are moments when Danielle Deadwyler - when she has that long scene on the stand I'm sure we'll talk about - how it's paced, how you see her working through her anger, her grief. There's a shot where it almost looks like she's convulsing. It would be a kind of reaction a mother would have as she's working through the horrific things that must be going through her mind that we don't see.

I really liked it. I mean, I gave it 3 1/2 stars in my review. I think it's a little too long. But other than that, the performances are very well done. And it made me go back and look up some of the details about Emmett. So I'm always appreciative of a movie that tries to be as true as possible, but also sends me back to think about what I was told and to verify whether or not it was true.

HARRIS: Yeah, that's absolutely true. I mean, especially with something when the events around it are so disputed - or have been so disputed or - and also, with the passage of so many years, stories morph. And so in the same way, I also went back and was like, OK, what is my memory of these details, and what I learned over the years? Stephen, what did you think of "Till?"

THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree with Odie pretty much across the board. And I had that similar experience of going home and spending almost as much time on the various Emmett Till-related Wikipedia pages as I had watching "Till" itself. It sent me, you know, down that rabbit hole to kind of assess some of the choices that she made in making this film. And as I thought about this movie more and more, I thought more and more about those choices, and how often I felt she took the right one. But I don't want to give the actual film itself short shrift, in part because of those choices that are made.

It is so easy when you are going back and trying to recreate this era of going in so hard, showing the oppression, showing the violence, showing the mistreatment. And this movie does such a nice job of showing that, but not dwelling on it or forcing viewers to relive it. I think there's a lot of really interesting directorial choices made around the depiction of the killers, how rarely - you never really get a straight view of their faces. You never really get - they're just not important. They loom as figures of menace and violence. You never actually stare them in the face. The movie's focus is on the family and on the people around them and on the movement that it helped spark. And I think that's so smart. I came away with real respect, not only for that central performance, but for the movie itself, which I think is excellent.


HENDERSON: There's some humor to this as well that - I do want to point out that some of it's very funny, and...


HENDERSON: ...And some of it is realistic. You know, there's that duality of Emmett - or Bo, as he's called, because that was his nickname - doing the teenager thing. You know, but Ma - you know, whenever she's like, be small. And then there's that moment Whoopi Goldberg, you know, is being a mother and Mamie Till-Mobley looks at her. And then Whoopi Goldberg goes, oh, that's - Mama, you know, shut up, you're - Mama, you're getting on my nerves. So there's some - there's humor in this. I remember when Ava DuVernay did the Q&A for "13th" at the New York Film Festival. She talked about Black life is not all trauma. There is Black joy. And I think the movie kind of leans into that.

The one thing that made me nervous was at the end of the film, we see Emmett Till again. And I was like, is this going to be a cheesy kind of, like, "Passion Of The Christ" resurrection-type thing? And the movie doesn't do that. The movie focuses on her - it being a memory of hers, and not having him just step back in so that we have a, quote-unquote, happy memory to go out on. It's actually rather bittersweet in that we know that it's her vision. And the last shot of the movie is on her.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah, it's interesting because I feel like I came out a little bit more mixed on this movie, or at least more hesitant to embrace it. I agree. I think that strong choices were made here and, for what it is trying to do, it accomplishes those things. And there are plenty of other films like this that have failed or have been put into less capable hands and have hammered home on that, like, very cheesy aspect of it that you were mentioning, Odie. But I don't know. For me, I come down on it like this. I went to a screening here in Oakland. And it was actually preceded by a short speech by Wanda Johnson, who is the mother of Oscar Grant who was killed by a police officer in 2009 in Oakland. While she was speaking and sort of talking about the importance of telling these stories and the fact that, you know, Oscar Grant, his - he was one of the first recorded video - in the cellphone-era - recorded police killings of a Black person.

And I kept thinking to myself, what is the benefit of continuing to dramatize these stories for the screen? And I think of the movies that at least work for me when it comes to retelling these stories that I think a lot of us are familiar with - and I think what I liked about some of the other films is that they feel a little bit more intimate in a way and a little bit smaller scale and a little bit more, quote-unquote, "true to life," as much as dramatization can. And with this film, it has the sort of sheen of Hollywood and Oscar and important season. It feels like the type of movie that, when I was in high school in history class, this would be the movie they'd show to supplement their discussion of Emmett Till. And as an educational tool, I see the worth and the purpose in it as entertainment to some extent, which is a weird thing to think about. Like, this is also supposed to be entertaining. I think it also works to some extent because Danielle Deadwyler is fantastic. That shot of her in the courtroom testifying is one shot. It's one long shot for - I don't know how long. It felt like 10, 15 minutes. I know it wasn't that long, but it felt like that...


HARRIS: ...In the best way possible. I think, like, it doesn't feel like the director is holding on to it too long. It feels like just the right amount of time. That is her Oscar scene. That is her - if and when she's nominated, that is the scene they're going to show...

THOMPSON: Oh, totally.

HARRIS: ...On the Oscars telecast. But at the same time, I just felt like - I felt conflicted because I do think that there is only so much power you can bring from this. And maybe I'm miscalculating it, but I feel like out of all the, you know, famous Black people who have died for - who have become famous for being dead, for lack of a better way of phrasing it - he is probably the one that is the most - like, most people will know. I just don't think it's enough to say we need to keep retelling these stories because we're still having these conversations about whether we should be reliving these traumas and showing Black death and Black trauma. While I know that this story galvanized a country in a way and helped the civil rights movement, I also think about the fact that before Emmett Till had died, there had already - like, photographing dead Black bodies was already - it was a market.

HENDERSON: The postcards, yeah.

HARRIS: There were postcards. That was, like - yeah. So I'm just curious, you know - obviously, Odie, it sounds like you feel this was justified. But, like - and this is a question for both of you. Like, how do you see filmmakers - Black filmmakers telling these stories going forward? Like, does it still feel relevant, or does this feel like a exception to you in terms of how it's carried out? I don't know. I'm just - I'm still wrestling with it.

HENDERSON: Well, there was another Emmett Till story earlier that was on television, right? "Women Of The Movement" in January on ABC, which I...

HARRIS: Right.

HENDERSON: ...Can't speak to because I didn't watch it simply for the reason that I, you know, I didn't want to relive this.

HARRIS: I saw a couple of the episodes of that, and it starred Adrienne Warren as Mamie.

HENDERSON: That's right. Yeah.


HENDERSON: So I said in my review - I talked about how, yeah, part of me is tired. But the other part of me, as you mentioned, you know, bringing this up, like, I maybe think of, like, in fifth grade when they showed us these really cheesy old movies about, you know, history. It's the necessary evil simply because so many people are trying as hard as they can to prevent future generations of kids now from even learning about who Emmett Till is. And on top of that, you know, this memorial sign they had keeps getting shot up every five seconds. So it's almost like nothing has changed. Like, we're basically back having to constantly remind, as ridiculous as this is, people of our worth. But at the same time, there is an exhaustion to it.

I'm not against this movie from them making it, and I do appreciate how it was made. But there are - this sounds kind of cold, but there are other stories that we can tell that similarly bring up what I'm talking about, showing our humanity, without necessarily being the same thing repeated over and over again. And I'm not sorry that I saw it, but at the same time, I start thinking about, well, what other Black movies have I seen this year? And I've seen "Good Madam" and "Master" and all these other movies where it's ridiculous episodes of trauma. And I don't want to hold that against this particular movie, but at the same time, there is an exhaustion, you know. And you get tired of kind of having to relive and rehash this.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I sympathize with that view completely and want more movies about the breadth of experience beyond reliving famous historical traumas. I do think, first of all, as Aisha said, I mean, this movie is going to get shown in high school history classes. This is - you know, move over "Hidden Figures." This is the movie that today's high schoolers will be watching. I think one of my kids saw "Hidden Figures" three times in school.

HARRIS: Oh, God. See, that was the movie I had in the back of my mind while watching this just because it has that same exact aesthetic, like, just that very bright sheen.

THOMPSON: The same sheen, that same kind of - yeah. And both are very good movies.


THOMPSON: I thought.

HENDERSON: Well, I love "Hidden Figures" and I'm a programmer. So if had seen that movie in high school, it would have changed my mental perspective of being in IT for the 35 years that I was in. And I felt like I was a unicorn.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And so I think that this is a very, very effective telling of this story. And I do think, like, different people are different kinds of learners, right? There are people who can latch in to history through, you know, reading articles on the internet or reading books or watching documentaries or - there are lots of different ways to tell these stories. Sometimes a lecture in a classroom is enough. But there are people who can really only, like, feel like they're hooking into a story and understand what's going on by watching a narrative recreation, by watching a dramatic retelling as popular entertainment.

And I think that in that way, this film provides a useful mechanism for people to understand and contextualize this story, which as much as it's in the past, I think the film does a nice job of contextualizing it to the present without being overly heavy-handed about it. And so, you know, I'm glad this movie exists. I understand why people might be hesitant to want to subject themselves to this story over and over again. But for those who do want this story contextualized for them in a dramatic retelling, I think this movie is an extraordinarily effective way to do that.

HARRIS: Yeah, I agree. And I want to be sympathetic to those viewers where that is the case. But I also just think about all the actors and the performers and the directors. And I don't want to discount those creators wanting and feeling drawn to telling those stories, but I also just kind of want more from them beyond this. And - I don't know. I just keep wondering - and again, this is not the movie they made, but I feel like it would have been, to me, more interesting to see Mamie's story - more of her story post the killing and, like, actually make it more about her, how this, like, really galvanized her and then the work she did and all those years - because she lived until 2003. She was active for many of those years afterwards.

And so the event itself, obviously, is the catalyst. But I think that it could have been even more interesting, at least for me as a viewer, to see Mamie post that and the years after and sort of how that factored into the civil rights movement. And I think that's kind of why a movie like "Selma," I think, really worked is because it really detailed in a way - that, like, detailed how the movement was sort of laid together and all the different angles that needed to be taken. So, yeah, I mean, look, I still think it's a movie that is worth seeing. I just think that it's also - I feel very mixed about it.


HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "Till." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Odie Henderson and Stephen Thompson, thanks so much to you both for being here and helping me parse through my feelings about this movie.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Aisha.

HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about "Interview With The Vampire."

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.