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Review: 'Till' is a brilliant drama about a lynched teenager and his valiant mother

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Danielle Deadwyler, (left) and Jalyn Hall in “Till.” Photo: Orion Pictures

“Till” should have been made 60 years ago. Ruby Dee could have starred in it. She would have been amazing.

But Hollywood has a long tradition of never presenting social issues until everybody, or almost everybody, agrees about them, and so “Till” — the story of the murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie — makes its way on to the big screen in 2022. Because hate still exists, it’s still relevant. And because great acting still exists, we have Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie, who turns out to be as brilliant as Ruby Dee might have been.

“Till” could have been a hard story to watch. Somehow it isn’t, but it’s hard to say why it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t back down. It tells the story of a child’s murder from the standpoint of the boy’s mother, and so there are numerous scenes of woman’s measureless anguish. Perhaps it’s the dignity and restraint of Chinonye Chukwu’s direction that keeps it all bearable. Or perhaps there’s just the quiet exhilaration of seeing an important story finally getting told.

Emmett Till grew up in Chicago and, as played by Jalyn Hall, is a confident, exuberant kid, glowing from the approval of his mother and grandmother (Whoopi Goldberg). We like him immediately, which is important if the movie is to have its full impact. We also understand that this is not a boy to send on a vacation to Mississippi. He hasn’t internalized a fear of white people. He is not defensive and this makes him defenseless.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg in “Till.” Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures

Grandma understands this as well, but tells herself that she’s being overly cautious. She puts him on the train heading south and then regrets it. Deadwyler, who is terrific throughout, is particularly effective in the scenes in which Mamie experiences the agony of knowing something without knowing for sure. She keeps telling herself otherwise but knows this trip is a mistake.

The incident that led to Till’s lynching occurred in Money, Mississippi, at a grocery store run by Carolyn Bryant. There have been so many accounts of the incident, including recanted testimony, that it’s hard to know exactly what happened, yet the movie comes up with a plausible version of events. The bottom line is that something Till did was regarded as insulting or offensive by Bryant.

Right away, Till’s cousins ​​realize the danger that Emmett is in, and watching the movie, you wish that they would just take him to the nearest train station and send him back to Chicago. Instead, a few days pass, and then comes the banging on the door in the middle of the night.

The movie stops short of depicting Till’s ordeal and concentrates on Mamie, who emerges as a remarkable woman over the course of her next few months. This is lesser-known history, best learned by watching it unfold. But the story has built in lots of memorable moments that demand, over and over, acting of the highest pitch. Scene after scene, Deadwyler delivers.

Danielle Deadwyler appears as Mamie Till-Mobley in “Till.” Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures

Being a true history, “Till” must stick to the facts, but the facts are grim and begin to take their toll on the movie — not in a big way, but as it goes on, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration . This is inevitable. It’s a frustrating and incalculably horrible true-life tale, in which Mississippi seems not even a part of the United States, but like some Confederate nightmare. Chukwu reinforces this atmosphere by finding white extras in the court scenes, who seem to have been cast on the basis of how scarily smug and self-satisfied they can look just sitting there.

But this is Deadwyler’s movie. Notice how Chukwu leaves the camera on her for long, flawless takes. It’s the same technique that Chukwu employed when filming Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” (2019). “Till” confirms Chukwu as an actor’s director and should establish Deadwyler as a major presence in movies.

M“Till”: Drama. Starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall and Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu. (R. 130 mins.) In theaters Friday, Oct. 21.