When the first trailer for Till was released this summer, many were quick to dismiss the film as yet another example of “Black trauma porn” – a movie that solely exists to showcase Black suffering in an effort to cheaply earn an audience’s attention or worse, win awards. Amazon’s graphic horror anthology series Them, produced by Emmy winner Lena Waithe, also had this critiqued levied at it, but even projects with more nuanced depictions of horrific events in Black history – such as the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave and Emmy-nominated The Underground Railroad – also had to overcome this obstacle with audiences who simply felt that they couldn’t stomach a film or show centered around this subject matter.
When writer-director Chinonye Chukwu – the first Black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, for her 2019 feature Clemency – set out to make a movie about Mamie Till-Mobley’s pursuit of justice after the lynching of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, she already knew what people would say. However, with the approach she took to this (sadly) oft-told story, it was completely unnecessary to show the central event itself – and in the final film, although we do witness Emmett being abducted from the home of the relatives he’s staying with while in Money, Mississippi, there is no other onscreen violence that is shown. Aside from that, Chukwu includes one brief shot of the barn where the lynching takes place, with her camera positioned hundreds of yards away, but we only hear a few wails before she cuts to the next scene to focus on this film’s primary protagonist – Mamie.
“This story is about Mamie and her journey, and so it wasn’t narratively necessary to show the physical violence inflicted upon Emmett,” Chukwu told CNN in a recent interview. “As a Black person, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to recreate it.” And while I, as a white critic, can’t speak to what is or isn’t “too much” for Black audiences to take in (Till is still undoubtedly an incredibly heavy film), I sincerely hope that that viewers who are on the fence about seeing the movie listen to Chukwu’s explanation of her earnest intentions not just to bear witness to the fascinating and deeply felt manner in which she has framed her retelling of this story, but also to experience the emotional enormity of Danielle Deadwyler’s powerhouse lead performance for themselves, as it will go down as not just one of the best of this year, but of this century.
Deadwyler, who plays Mamie, is not yet as “known” of a name as her Best Actress competitors this year like Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, and Michelle Williams – only recently really capturing the industry’s attention with standout supporting roles in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall and HBO Max’s Station Eleven – and both this lack of mainstream exposure and the current controversy surrounding Till have threatened to cloud her campaign, which would be one of the most depressing developments in any awards season in my lifetime (and probably before, in all honesty). A performance this lived-in, this expertly expressed, and this resonantly raw is the very performance that the Best Actress category (or any acting category at any industry awards ceremony) is meant to honor – and even award.
From her earliest scenes, Deadwyler perfectly portrays Mamie’s undying devotion to Emmett – this is a mother who lives for child, and that is affectionately apparent in every soft smile, every emphatic embrace, and, of course, every considerate, yet calculated, word of caution. Throughout the entire first act of the film, anxiety is in the air. We know what’s about to transpire, and Mamie seems to possess some sort of prescient precognition as well (though this isn’t supernatural in any sense, it’s simply a byproduct of being a Black person living in America), and that foreknowledge makes her fear all the more painful and poignant. We want to reach through the screen and tell her she’s right, and warn her not to let Emmett go, but such an act is impossible. We’re forced to sit and watch these inevitable events play out, right alongside Mamie, and it’s because of Deadwyler’s full-bodied immersion into Mamie’s identity that we do indeed feel every single emotion as acutely and intimately as she does.
The first time I was brought to tears watching Till (and this wouldn’t be the last) was when Mamie bids Emmett farewell before he boards his train to Mississippi and, prior to entering, he turns back to give one last smile and wave to his mother. It was then that it dawned on me that this would be the last time Mamie would see Emmett alive – her beautiful boy, beaming back at her – and instead of being assuaged by Emmett’s actions, she can’t seem to set her concern aside. She wears an expression of exasperation, and you can’t help but sense her hopelessness for yourself. She couldn’t possibly know what exactly will take place on Emmett’s trip, but she knows she’ll be filled with dread every minute he’s in Mississippi – a feeling that won’t subside until he’s back on Illinois soil. And yet, it seems like there’s a part of her that knows this day might never come. She can’t say why. A mother just knows. And every aspect of this emotional affliction is given to the audience in just one glance.
Throughout the rest of the film, we’re treated to even greater displays of Mamie’s grief: her distressing fainting upon learning of Emmett’s death, her cries of sorrow as soon as she sees Emmett’s coffin for the first time, her heart-wrenching revulsion after being shown Emmett’s bludgeoned body (which we too observe, in delicate detail, honoring how the real Mamie shared photos of Emmett’s corpse with the world to drum up outrage at what had happened to her son), and so on and so forth. And naturally, on account of Deadwyler’s astonishingly dynamic acting, every beat is both brutal and beguiling in equal measure. But it’s when Mamie channels that anguish into action that Deadwyler – and the film – evolve, and what was once a harrowing yet riveting recounting of a horrible moment in American history becomes a bruisingly affecting analysis of how one summons the will to transform their pain into their power.
Mamie should never have had to know how much it hurts to lose a child. But because she is personally touched by this trauma, over time (and with the assistance of friends and family), she strives to make peace with this strain on her psyche by pushing for Emmett’s death to bring about progress for the Black community at large, to assure that no parent ever has to experience this same atrocity. Deadwyler’s metamorphosis is mesmerizing – it’s impossible for her to fully forget her heartache, but she develops a steely resolve in spite of it, learning how to harness her passion into political and legal advancement, which we witness most notably in the film’s climax, when Mamie bravely takes the stand to offer her testimony at the trial of Emmett’s murderers. Doing so puts her life at risk – and forces her to unearth all the ugly emotions she has been struggling to keep under control – but she knows that, even though the odds are against them, she’ll forever regret not having her voice heard, and not knowing if it would’ve made a difference.
What follows is one of the most emotionally obliterating “Oscar clips” I’ve ever seen for an actor, but, stepping away from the awards talk for a second, it’s also simply maybe one of the greatest showcases an actor has ever been given, period. During a five-minute-long unbroken shot, Mamie first shares her own story verifying that the body that was found and identified as Emmett’s was truly his – tearfully making her case as a mother who knows every crease and crevice of her child’s body like the back of her hand – and she’s later questioned by the defense with degrading inquiries that seek to sully both the image of her and her son, which she must answer as she tries to stifle her anger and maintain her composure. And because the camera never breaks, we see this effortful expressional control occur in real time, with a front row seat to Deadwyler’s deft gritting of her teeth, furrowing of her brow, and steadying of her breath.
It’s abhorrent that she should be asked the things she is after sharing what she did, and it’s not in any way fair – we know it, she knows it – but she must maintain her cool if they have any chance of receiving justice for Emmett, and it’s outright astonishing to perceive this emotional process for ourselves, with Deadwyler fully invested from the first second of this scene to the last. “Transformations” are always a hot topic during awards season, and typically, we use that word to describe performances where actors wear extensive prosthetics or lose/gain an excessive amount of weight in order to embody the very physical being of the person they’re playing. But Deadwyler is undergoing a transformation here too, and she didn’t need any of those tricks to pull it off. She used her empathy to align her very soul and spirit with Mamie’s and tap into all of her sorrow and strength until the two were one. And then, she went to work.
I doubt I’ll see many other performances – if any – this year that come close to capturing the power of Deadwyler’s here, and for that alone, I believe she deserves the Academy’s attention. But there also remains the ugly truth of the Oscars that, in 95 years, only one woman of color has won Best Actress (Halle Berry, in 2001, for Monster’s Ball). A few have come close (Viola Davis has twice, for both The Help and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), but none have been able to follow in Berry’s footsteps. And with that in mind, it makes a nomination for Deadwyler – or even a potential win – feel exponentially more urgent. How can we let a performance of this magnitude pass us by, especially when the Academy has such a horrific history with honoring any lead actress who isn’t a white woman?
Deadwyler isn’t the only woman of color in contention this year – Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh, The Woman King‘s Viola Davis, and I Wanna Dance with Somebody‘s Naomi Ackie are also top contenders – but there’s something about Till‘s story, and the poignancy of this part, that makes me feel like Deadwyler should be one of the surest bets for a nomination, if not the trophy. The Oscars love awarding mothers who go above and beyond for both their children and other passions and pursuits (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner‘s Katharine Hepburn, Terms of Endearment‘s Shirley MacLaine, Erin Brockovich‘s Julia Roberts, Room‘s Brie Larson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s Frances McDormand, and many, many more), so what makes Deadwyler any different? And if you’re one of the people who says “it should be about performance, not the politics,” then great – Deadwyler’s got the performance to pull it off, too.