‘Till’: An Uncritical Mother’s Story of an American Tragedy ⭐️⭐️⭐️

In a dark equity-waiver theater, my friend and I waited to see Mamie Mobley’s first play. At the end, we uncomfortably shuffled out, waiting patiently as Mamie Till-Mobley shook each guest’s hand. When we at last escaped into the night we were relieved. The play, “The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till” was not good although it was certainly touchingly filled with true tragedy and earnest good intentions.

 

Mamie Till-Mobley and David Barr III wrote “The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till” now called “The Face of Emmett Till.” It was performed at the Inglewood Playhouse 25 August 2000 to 1 Oct 2000 and, as “The Face of Emmett Till,” will be performed at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts on 20 October 2022.

If I remember correctly, the director had changed.  That’s never a good sign. My impression was that Till-Mobley was unwilling to trust others to write her and her son’s story even though by that time there were certainly enough African American writers, playwrights and even directors who could have guided this project and shaped it into something better.

For that reason, I found Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic “Till” emotionally overwrought and too eager to portray Mamie Till-Mobley as a saint. The film “Till” honors Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley,  but doesn’t allow us to see her flaws beyond her complacency versus activism her son’s horrific death propelled her toward. According to the Kickstarter campaign, this adapted screenplay is based on Keith Beauchamp’s 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” and Simeon Wright’s autobiography “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till.”  The focus is on Mamie, played with great emotional intelligence by Danielle Deadwyler (“The Harder They Fall”). Jaylyn Hall’s Emmett Till is a boy who has the physical height of a man, but the emotional nature of a careless boy.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chukwu’s script made Emmett less sympathetic to me. The film begins in Chicago. Emmett wants a wallet, which Mamie Till buys her only child. She’s subject to micro aggressions in the department store. Yes, there is certainly racism in the Chicago, even in well-ordered department stores. Mamie feels a sense of dread, and the script too heavy handedly portrays her premonitions.

Mamie’s uncle, Mose Wright (John Douglas Thompson), took Emmett in and Emmett bunked with Simeon Wright(Tyrik Johnson). Maurice (Diallo Thompson),  Simeon’s older brother, tries to watch over both his younger brother and his young cousin.

I loved that Emmett was a sharp dresser and I have no quarrel with the production color design that makes yellow a visual theme. Hall’s Emmett is a city mouse sent down to the country, but unlike Aesop’s tale, the country proves more deadly. Yet I have also been on a farm, my mother’s family were truck farmers, with cucumbers and tomatoes as their crop. The film portrays Till’s relatives as sharecroppers and, during on particularly scene,  they are hard at work, picking cotton. They explain to Emmett that they will first give their landlord his share and then sell theirs. Emmett Till is playing around, a distraction during harvest. He seems utterly oblivious to the rigors of farm life which always seems to be on the edge of disaster, the tension only relieved periodically by joyous celebrations after harvest.

Maurice is there with Emmett and Simeon when Emmett enters Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. While Maurice is somewhat wary of his young cousin’s ways, he doesn’t bother to get up himself and instead sends Simeon in to watch their city cousin. At the time of his purchase though, Emmett is alone and his  manners are a bit too glib with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). She’s an adult, he’s a boy, but he’s also flirtatious after he reaches in the jar and gets some candy.  And he does the wolf whistle as he gets out the door.

What would a woman–of any color, alone with just men lounging around outside feel in 1955? Do women not feel the whisper of a threat when being wolf whistled in the streets while alone in the proximity of a group of men and only men in sight?

This does not, of course, excuse what happened later, the kidnapping and torture of a young boy. Was Emmett just mimicking the behavior he had seen in Chicago? We don’t know. We can only assume, but that isn’t part of the screenplay. Mamie’s claim that she had taught Emmett to whistle to lessen the stutter he had as a residual effect of childhood polio is also not part of the script. In the movie “Till,” Emmett does compare Carolyn to a movie star and he does wolf whistle.

The African American boys and men at the store–African Americans formed the main clientele–immediately realize the wolf whistle was too much. They leave in panic as Carolyn gets a gun. Emmett and his cousins later confer and Emmett doesn’t want to be sent back to Chicago so they agree to say nothing to Mose. A few days pass, and they think they are safe.

When half-brothers Roy Bryant (Sean Michael Weber) and JW Milan (Eric Whitten) come calling at night, the fear is real. Mose does make a choice between his life and the lives of his family and that of Emmett. But the scene makes it clear: African American men were also involved in Emmett’s abduction. While we thankfully won’t see any gruesome torture, we will see that there was at least one witness, Willie Reed (Darian Rolle), who happened to be walking by the barn  where the men took Emmett to be tortured. Reed testified to the presence of two African American men. Those that testified lived in fear. And, for those who know history, the appearance of Tosin Cole as Medgar Evers makes that real. The script does preface Emmett’s murder by news of lynchings, too.

There is some things left out. There were more witnesses: Retired FBI agent Dale Killinger who was the lead agent for the FBI investigation in 2004 (a year after Mamie died), believed that Leslie Milam’s wife, Frances, must have heard the cries. The barn where Emmett was tortured was not far from the farmhouse where Leslie Milam and his wife were living and Leslie was party to the lynching.

That barn still stands although it seems it has mostly been written out of history according to an article in The Atlantic.

In “Till,” there are other prejudices that are noted: Mamie was not the ideal candidate for a NAACP symbol. The problem of championing a divorcee who is in a relationship, but still unmarried (to barber Gene Mobley, played by Sean Patrick Thomas) is discussed in the film. Mamie would eventually marry Mobley and remained married to him for the rest of their lives.

From reading The Atlantic article, there seems to be other prejudices that aren’t delineated. One current resident of the area noted, “J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant both had been ostracized in the white community after what they had done. The people just decided: At least the code said you don’t do that to children.” The film, as a written epilogue, does note Milam and Bryant did get money from Life Magazine where they confessed their guilt. Double jeopardy protected them. However, they didn’t live happily ever after, they weren’t left in peace as the film allows viewers to believe.

During the trial, people put up jars in stores around the Delta to raise money for Bryant and Milam, but once the pair got paid for the magazine confession, they were essentially exiled. Bryant lost his store because almost all his customers had been Black and nobody would shop there anymore. He moved around a lot, broke and shunned. J. W. Milam lived out his final years in a Black neighborhood, the only place he could afford. He kept getting in trouble—for writing bad checks, for assault, for using a stolen credit card.

What isn’t part of the screenplay is the troubled relationship Mamie Till-Mobley had with her first husband. According to Murderpedia.org, she had to defend herself against him by throwing boiling water. Mamie  took out a restraining order and it was his violation of that document that led to his enlisting in the US Army in 1943. In 1945, he was courtmartialed and executed. Another more famous prisoner, Ezra Pound,  mentioned him in his poem. Mamie’s second marriage was short-lived.

 

In the film, she is an impeccably dressed woman, emotionally broken by her son’s murder, but then transformed into an activist that cared for the African American children everywhere and she proved that through the death of her son, one person could make a difference in history. No doubt Mamie Till-Mobley was an admirable woman, but she was not a saint. She did make some missteps and the play I witnessed was certainly one of them.

You can read two different newspapers accounts of the trial through the archives in the Florida State University Libraries:

At two hours and 10 minutes, “Till” feels overlong. Tighter pacing and less ponderously long closeups would have helped and still you’d be able to feel the strength and emotional hardship in Deadwyler’s performance. “Till” made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival (1 October 2022) and opened nationwide on 14 October 2022.

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