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 - Jasmijn Groot -

In March 2022, US President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Its enactment has since made the practice of lynching, the extrajudicial killing of an individual by a mob, punishable as a hate crime, with a maximum prison sentence of thirty years. The law is named after the victim of one of the most horrific lynchings in history, that of Emmett Till (1941-1955). The then fourteen-year-old boy was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a number of white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman — a social interaction that was not allowed in the state of Mississippi at the time, due to the Jim Crow laws. Emmett's mother Mamie Till (1921-2003) managed to attract international attention by linking an image to the horrors of segregation and racism in the Deep South. That image being the image of her horribly mutilated son. Mamie insisted the press take pictures of Emmett's face, which was extremely swollen because he had been dumped in a river, and she left his coffin open at his funeral so everyone could see what had been done to her son.

It's not just with these chilling impressions that director Chinonye Chukwu wants to remind audiences of the violence that comes with racism. In her new film Till, she chooses another striking part of Emmett's story to get the message across. The fact that he wasn't even from Mississippi.

Emmett ´Bo´ Till (played by Jalyn Hall) was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, a state in America where racism was still part of everyday life, as Chukwu shows in the opening scenes, but where African Americans were not in the same danger as in the South, where Mamie's family was originally from. In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) sent her only son to spend a few weeks of summer vacation with her uncle and his family in the small town of Money, Mississippi. She was not too happy about it, though. Mamie, who knew the terrible segregated face of the southern state, tried to prevent her son from getting into trouble by teaching him to watch out for the white folk. The carefree boy forgot his mother's advice for a moment, when he gazed upon Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett) in her small grocery store and compared her beauty to that of a movie star. It was reason for Bryant to draw her gun. Bo managed to escape with his nephews. But a few days later, he was lifted from his bed in the middle of the night by Bryant's husband and brother-in-law. Bo returned to his mother in Chicago in a coffin.

Chukwu does not shy away from any audiovisual means to confront the viewer with the terrible facts surrounding Bo's death. Although we experience the story from Mamie's perspective, the director gives truly breathtaking impressions of what the moment must have been when Bo's fate was sealed, what his last terrifying moments must have been like, and above all how horribly he was struck by his captors. Chukwu doesn't feel bad to take her audience's breath away and make them feel physically uncomfortable. If you as a viewer feel somewhat unwell at this point in the film, buckle up, because it´s going to get worse.

The state of Mississippi saw absolutely no reason to prosecute Bo´s perpetrators for murder. Trial procedures were only started when pressure arose from the international attention that Mamie managed to draw to the gruesome murder of her son. But in order to proceed with the case, Mamie had to go back to Mississippi. And with her return, assisted by her father John Carthan (Frankie Faison) and by her uncle Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson), we enter the truly sickening part of the film. And it´s not even because of the same kind of chilling scenes we've seen before that makes you feel sick to your stomach. It is a combination of several aspects that Chukwu masterfully portrays. From the segregated entrances to the courtroom, to the disrespectful searches black people had to endure, and the casual way in which state officials put the n-word in their mouths, to the judge not taking the case seriously and the defense not wanting to shake Mamie's hand. All of this together not only increasingly makes you feel that Mamie had no chance to get her justice. Chukwu gives you the oppressive feeling of what it is to be in constant danger when you are seen as less than a human being.

And so, Chinonye Chukwu manages to let an international audience re-experience racial hatred, just like Mamie Till did almost seventy years before her. With recent examples of racial slurs being used in for example Rotterdam, we apparently need it still.


Image: Keith Beauchamp, Barbara Brocolli, Whoopi Goldberg, e.a. (2022) Movie poster for Till.


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