‘Till’ review: Danielle Deadwyler shines as Mamie Till Mobley after her son Emmett Till’s death

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Getting the delicate balance of the story mostly right, “Till” captures how Mamie Till Mobley turned the inconsolable grief over the murder of her son, Emmett, into resolve and activism. Anchored by Danielle Deadwyler’s towering performance, it’s a wrenching portrayal of reluctant heroism under the most horrific of parental circumstances.

“Till” comes less than a year after ABC covered these events in “Women of the Movement,” which devoted six parts to the story and spent considerably more time on the courtroom drama. The movie, almost out of necessity, races through that chapter, an understandable choice given that the trial’s outcome was largely a foregone conclusion.

As constructed by “Clemency” director Chinonye Chukwu (working from a screenplay by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp), Mamie’s apprehension at the thought of her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hill), going to visit his relatives in Mississippi in 1955 borders on premonition. That’s in part because the boy, introduced cheerfully singing and dancing with his mother, seems not to be taking her warnings seriously enough when she cautions him, “Be extra careful. Be small down there.”

Visiting the local store with his cousins, Emmett offhandedly notes that the White female clerk (Haley Bennett) resembles the movie-star photo that came with his new wallet. When he whistles, his relatives immediately fear trouble could follow and rapidly leave the scene.

In what feels like a prudent choice, Chukwu presents the harrowing moment when White men pull the sleeping Emmett from the house, but doesn’t dwell on the murder itself; instead, the visual focus is on the grisly aftermath of what was done to him, an image that Mamie chose to share publicly by having an open casket and inviting the press to photograph the body, wanting “the whole world to see what happened to my son.”

Given the unrelenting grimness of the story, less is indeed more, and “Till” hits its stride during that stretch, as the devastated Mamie exhibits an astute grasp of how to deal with her son’s killing in the court of public opinion. What begins as a fruitless quest for justice evolves into a larger mission to expose systemic injustice and prevent others from sharing his fate.

Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Mobley.

Although the cast includes Sean Patrick Thomas as Mamie’s caring boyfriend (and later husband) and Frankie Faison and Whoopi Goldberg (the latter doubling as a producer) as her parents, it’s Deadwyler’s show, almost to the exclusion of anyone else. Yet if that somewhat constricts “Till’s” focus, there are enough heart-in-the-throat moments as she first worries about Emmett’s status and then learns of it to pack an emotional wallop that carries through to the end.

More than 65 years after his death, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law earlier this year – a sign, as Chukwu notes in a director’s statement, of “present cultural and political realities” that echo through the film.

“Till” clearly felt the weight of that legacy, and there’s a difficult-to-avoid aspect to the production that can’t entirely escape a movie-of-the-week feel. At its core, though, the depiction of Mamie’s strength and resilience captures her as more than just a symbol, but a reluctant flesh-and-blood hero whose determination in the face of an unspeakable tragedy echoed beyond her time into ours.

“Till” premieres October 14 in select US theaters and more widely on October 28. It’s rated PG-13.

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