Chinonye Chukwu

Till

07/01/23

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The story of Emmett Till and his mother, Maimie Till-Mobley, is a real-life tragedy that echoes down the years, a case that was only fully resolved in 2022 – even though the initial events unfolded more than sixty years ago.

It’s August 1955, and Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) lives and works in Chicago. Her husband died during World War 2, but she has found herself a decent job (the only Black woman in her office) and is well able to give her live-wire fourteen year old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), a comfortable life. Mamie is understandably worried when Emmett announces his wish to go and visit his cousins and work with them on a cotton plantation in Mississippi for the summer. She knows that it will be a stark cultural change from the relatively enlightened city in which the boy has grown up – and she knows too that he’s always ready to lark around and crack jokes. Mamie’s mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), advises her to warn her son to keep his head down. “If he does that, he’ll be fine,” she says. “He’ll be back in no time.” So Mamie reluctantly agrees to the visit.

But her worst fears are soon shockingly realised. In Mississippi, Emmett visits a convenience store and makes friendly overtures to Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white woman behind the counter. The next time Mamie sees her son is at the railway station in Chicago, where she views his brutalised, barely recognisable body in a wooden box. He’s been beaten, shot and lynched.

Chinonye Chuku’s film is fuelled by righteous anger, the knowledge that such brutality can – and still does – exist in one of the world’s more powerful countries. There are plenty of other characters in the story, all faithfully rendered, but it is Deadwyler’s extraordinarily powerful performance that gives it wings. Little wonder she’s considered a front-runner for the next Oscars.

If I’m honest, the screenplay (by Chuku, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp) has a tendency to occasionally drift into too much exposition, and the slowly unfolding process of the trial can sometimes seem ponderous. But that’s a minor niggle. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to viewing much of this through a fuzzy veil of helpless tears.

The most shocking details of all are reserved for the end credits, one of which actually makes me gasp in disbelief.

If you’re looking for a cheery outing to the movies, Till really isn’t the film for you, but it’s an important piece of relatively recent history and a fitting tribute to the memory of both Emmett Till and his incredibly brave and resourceful mother. My advice? Steel yourselves and take a long, hard look.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Clemency

19/07/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Anybody who still believes that the death penalty is a defensible punishment should sit down and take a long, hard look at this film. Chinonye Chukwu’s bleak, slow burn of a movie ably demonstrates the ways in which capital punishment brutalises and destroys all who come into contact with it – including those who have to implement its chilling procedures.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) is the warden of an American prison, a place mostly populated by inmates awaiting death by lethal injection. In a blistering opening sequence, we see one such execution being carried out in unflinching detail. It’s horribly botched, which makes it all the more affecting.

Also waiting on death row is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a taciturn young man accused of murdering a police officer. He’s been imprisoned for seven years and ¬†insists that he’s innocent, but what makes Clemency different from Just Mercy – a film with which it will inevitably be compared ¬†– is that we’re really never sure whether he has committed the crime or not. In a way, it’s irrelevant, because it’s the very system of capital punishment that’s on trial here and not its victims.

Bernadine is struggling with her duties as warden – the daily grind of dealing with the fear, the hope, the demonstrators, the relatives of those imprisoned and, of course, the inmates themselves. She takes solace in drink and realises that a wedge is developing between her and her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), but feels unable to do anything about it. Around her, other people are quitting. Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who has spent his life fighting for death row prisoners, tells Bernardine that Woods’ case will be his last – he just can’t take any more campaigns for clemency that never yield results. Even the dead policeman’s parents feel that justice has already been served and want Woods to be pardoned. And he, meanwhile, has pinned all his his hopes on meeting his young son for the first time.

Both Woodward and Hedges submit powerhouse performances here; neither of them isafforded much opportunity to talk, but their fears and hopes are writ large in every move, in every despairing look they direct towards the camera. This will not be the happiest screen experience you’ve ever had, but it’s nonetheless a stirring and emotional story, and a passionate plea for change.

4 stars

Philip Caveney