“Till” tells the story of how Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) turned grief into anger and helped ignite the civil rights movement. Emmett, her 14-year-old son, went south in the summer of 1955 to visit relatives in Mississippi. There he is brutally murdered after a white store owner concocts a story about Emmett making sexual advances towards her (a common lie used to justify countless lynchings during the Jim Crow era). The film allows us to feel Mamie’s pain all over again, amplifying her courage in turning her son’s murder and maiming into a civil rights issue. Choosing to give Emmett an open funeral, she insisted that the world see what the killers, who were acquitted by an all-white jury, had done to her child.
Directed by Chinone Choco, “Till” deviates from many previous films about the civil rights movement in one crucial aspect: It puts its black characters front and center in their struggle, rather than giving them secondary roles to white saviors. Think Mississippi Burning (1988), a highly entertaining movie that finds two FBI agents J. Edgar Hoover (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) coming to the rescue the day after the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. or “Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996), in which the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers is used as a means of redemption for a white prosecutor (Alec Baldwin), with Evers’ widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), wedged into the background.
This will not fly anymore. Not as black Americans continue to die at the hands of law enforcement. And not with the virulent racism that seeps from the periphery of society to a level not seen in years.
“You have these conversations about critical race theory being had by people who don’t even know what critical race theory is,” Didwiller said in a phone interview. You have people trying to blatantly lie about the truth of American history. There is a need to challenge that. People should watch the movie for this reason, and people should watch the movie in order to really understand what these families are going through.”
The murder of Emmett Till is among the most infamous stories of the civil rights movement — and that’s not to say everyone knows it. In the final preview showing of “Till”, there are audible gasps when it is discovered that the boy has been killed. It’s the kind of history that wasn’t always taught in school – and some would have preferred it wasn’t.
“Till” isn’t the first civil rights movie to eschew the motif of shiny white armor (nor is the first Mamie Till-Mobley-focused project: the short-lived ABC anthology series “Women of the Movement,” starring Adrienne Warren, aired earlier this year ). Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) stars David Oyelowo as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But it also found room for other major characters in the action, from Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) to Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). The film immersed itself in the details of organization and work. (She received two Academy Award nominations, winning both for the original song.)
The increasing diversity of the film industry is one reason why films continue to improve their record in depicting the civil rights movement.
“Hollywood’s approach to civil rights history has achieved a level of depth and complexity in films like Selma that would have been unimaginable in the bad old days of Mississippi Burning hagiography,” says Bennell Joseph, a history professor at the university. From Texas in Austin who has written extensively about the civil rights movement, including the new book Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century. “This reflects the growing and diverse number of black filmmakers, executives, and creators whose efforts to understand the era have converged between art and history to create something unique in the history of American cinema: films that offer at once a reflection of the past, a mirror of the present and a window to the future.”
White people were often key allies in the civil rights movement (including James Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who paid with their lives with James Chaney in the murders that inspired “Mississippi Burning”). Their contributions should not be reduced. Hollywood’s problem over the years has been choosing to tell stories they can sell white heroes to, even to the point of turning the FBI, which has often harassed and surveilled movement leaders, into a beacon of racial justice.
Movies like “Till” and “Selma” help remedy this misconception. The need is urgent for such films, the timing, unfortunately, is perfect.
“This violence Didwiller says. “We should have empathy and empathy when we speak the names of people who went missing in late 2020, like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. These individuals left behind families who carry on their legacy. This is the imperative nature of watching the movie: challenge anyone who tries to resist the truth of American history and challenge yourself to give a destiny Greater respect, value and sympathy for the families who are actually still experiencing this kind of tragedy today.”
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