The 60th New York Film Festival is pretty low on World Premieres this year. That’s more a function of the calendar than the fest, but it does make Till all the more memorable. Despite not being in one of the three main slots, its spot at the festival is notable for kicking off its probable awards run. This dramatized look at the murder of Emmett Till and especially his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and her crusade for justice, is all about its lead performance. Take away that turn and this would be a fairly ordinary and forgettable bit of Oscar bait. Factor it in, however, and you have one of the movies most likely to make an impact with NYFF audiences.
Till is the Danielle Deadwyler show, playing the mother of the tragic figure at the core of the film. She’s terrific, while the movie is just mostly solid. So she elevates the picture, though the less charitable description would be that the flick doesn’t aptly support her work. Essentially, you have a performance impossible to forget, within a biopic that may prove somewhat hard to otherwise remember.
A dramatization of the true life events, we meet Mamie Till Mobley (Deadwyler) in 1955, about to set her son Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) off on a trip to see his cousins. Emmett is incredibly excited, even if Mamie worries for her innocent boy. Saying goodbye at the train station, she’s petrified, though she’d never guess that it was the last time she’d ever see her son. As we all know, Emmett is lynched while visiting his cousins in Mississippi, as retaliation for talking to a white woman (Haley Bennett) at a shop.
Overcome with grief, Mamie is comforted by her mother Alma Carthan (Whoopi Goldberg), but she also soon finds purpose in crusading for justice. Hooking up with the civil rights movement, she’s on a quest to see her son’s death no be in vein, including putting the known murderers on trial. The historical record informs you what’s to come, but her mark on history is not to be understated in the least.
Danielle Deadwyler is excellent and the main reason this is cinema not to be ignored. Just watch her in the scene that places her on the witness stand in the trial. What she’s doing is really above and beyond. It’s a star making turn, undeniably. Jaylin Hall is a bit one-note, but he’s playing the role as it’s written. Whoopi Goldberg makes the most of her few scenes, while Haley Bennett is a non-factor. Supporting players here include Frankie Faison, Sean Patrick Thomas, John Douglas Thompson, and more. It’s 100% Deadwyler’s show though, without question.
Co-writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, penning the script with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, is at her best when she focuses on her leading lady. Till falters early on, especially in choosing to overplay the impending tragedy. It levels out afterwards, leading to some truly affecting moments, especially the aforementioned trial scene, but the first act is a bit rough. The more we get to watch Deadwyler in action, the better. Otherwise, what we have here is fairly run of the mill.
Till is a showcase for Deadwyler, plain and simple. As one of the only titles actually debuting at NYFF this year, it has a nice platform to launch her into the Oscar race. Beyond that? We shall see, since at least to me, the movie is somewhat ordinary, otherwise. Still, this performance demands your attention, whether at a festival or during the awards season to come.