For a moment, it feels like director Chinonye Chukwu Until could get us out of trouble. Following the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) while visiting cousins in 1955 in Mississippi, the body was returned to Chicago, to be identified by his mother, Granny (Danielle Deadwyler). As the sheet is removed, Chukwu obscures the body with the rail of another stretcher at the morgue; perhaps we will spare ourselves the horrible spectacle that greeted Mamie. Then the camera moves ever so slightly upward, bringing the bloated, battered corpse into full view, not just for a brief glimpse, but long enough for the viewer to decide whether to look away.
In a sense, this cinematographic choice in Until echoes one that Grandma did, choosing to bring the image of Emmett’s disfigured body into the public consciousness and becoming a driving force behind the first post-Reconstruction federal civil rights legislation in 1957. But it also does part of a scene that becomes a focal point of the quiet intensity that characterizes both the protagonist and Chukwu’s film as a whole. While the overall seriousness of the story can feel a little flat at times, it draws emotional strength from the reality of having to stare Emmett Till’s body in the face.
We can also stare him in the face as a lively, fun-loving teenager before those horrific events, as Chukwu and co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp highlight the close relationship between Emmett and his war-widowed mother. It is important, however, that Until does not suggest an idyllic world from which Emmett was torn. The very first scene, of Emmett and Grandma singing together in the car to The Moonglows’ “Sincerely,” dissolves into dissonant strings and a look of dread on Grandma’s face as she ponders the impending trip to Mississippi. Even in Chicago around 1955, the two encounter race-based suspicion while shopping at a department store. And as the trip looms, Grandma gives Emmett “the talk” on how to behave among racist white people to stay out of trouble – something contemporary parents still need to do to protect their black sons.
It would have been understandable if a version of this story then chose to emphasize the murder itself as a central moment, but that’s not on Chukwu’s agenda; in the dark of night, she remotely films the exterior of a house, Emmett’s cries of anguish becoming somehow more disturbing to what we don’t see. In place, Until makes the story of Mamie’s response to this horror, and Chukwu centers Deadwyler’s performance as much as possible. This is most evident in the scene where Grandma testifies at the trial of Emmett’s killers, where Chukwu doesn’t cut once while the prosecution and defense question him, allowing for Grandma’s sense of isolation at the moment. to amplify both her tears and her refusal to break down when the defense insinuates that Grandma might have wanted Emmett dead for the insurance money.
This moment could certainly play overly “acting” – it’s easy to imagine this is the clip that plays during the Oscar nominee recap – and Deadwyler faces a challenge to find both the mother in mourning and the budding activist at Mamie. For all major emotional breakdowns, however, Deadwyler’s work might be the strongest. before Emmett’s death, as she lives in perpetual anxiety for Emmett’s well-being in a place built to view him as disposable. as efficiently as Until conveys the idea that nearly all activists become so reluctant, it also captures life as a parent with that perpetual shadow of fear that you’re one of those people pushed into the spotlight.
It is perhaps inevitable that a matter as serious as Untilwill involve filmmaking that leans towards the over-reverent, and Chukwu occasionally relies on Abel Korzeniowski’s somewhat chunky score. There’s also awkward explanatory stuff like Grandma telling her Mississippi driver, “Thank you, Mr. Evers,” receiving the response, “Call me Medgar.” But the tone and pacing mostly work here, including the willingness to dwell on Grandma’s encounter with Emmett’s corpse, filled with more sweetness than disgust. She does not see a grotesque, but her son, just as Grandma asked the world to do 67 years ago, and as Until ask us to do now.