It simply defies belief that Golden Globe voters failed to nominate Danielle Deadwyler for a Best Actress award for her performance in this all-too-relevant biopic about activist Mamie Till-Bradley (as she was then), whose son was the victim of a notorious lynching in the American South. It will be an outrage if Academy members make the same mistake.
It’s 1955 and 14 year-old Emmett (a fantastic Jalyn Hall; sweet, but not too sweet) is desperate to leave Chicago and visit his great-uncle in Mississippi. Mamie reluctantly agrees, warning her son that everything she’s taught him about self-belief needs to be temporarily unlearned. He promises to act “small”, but, having arrived in the tiny town of Money, he holds his head high, chirpily telling a white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant (a superb Haley Bennett), that she’s the spit of movie star Hedy Lamarr, before whistling at her, as his appalled cousins gaze on.
Four nights later, Bryant’s husband and another man drag Emmett from his great-uncle’s home. The next time Mamie sees her boy, he’s dead and so badly mutilated she can barely recognise him. And yet, she allows a journalist to photograph his body on the autopsy table.
For the public funeral, in Chicago, she insists his casket be kept open. She wants everyone to see what’s been done to her boy, and the way the press, and the country as a whole, react to that decision gives her the confidence to attend the Mississippi trial of Roy Bryant and JW Milam. With the help of members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – nuanced figures, conscious of how the media can wreck, as well as build, reputations – she fights to make her son’s death matter.
This is not one of those worthy projects that plods through its central character’s most famous words and deeds. Nor does it serve up torture porn or fetishise Emmett’s corpse. We’re in the safe hands of Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, whose last movie, Clemency, gave the wonderful Alfre Woodard so much room for manoevre, as a warden working on Death Row. Chukwu prefers humans to saints and fluid film-making is her thing.
In 1985, Roy Bryant whined, “Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he can’t just stay dead.” It goes without saying that Bryant would have hated this movie, which does such a fine job of ensuring that Mamie and Emmett live and breathe again.
130mins, cert 12A