In 1955 Second World War widow Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) is raising her teenage son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) in Chicago. While their lives are not free from racial discrimination, as we see when they go shopping in a posh Chicago store, their lives are not under threat. Mamie even has a good office job working for the Air Force, where she is the only black woman in an otherwise all white typing pool.
Things change however when Emmett is invited to stay with relatives in Mississippi. Mamie knows things are very different there and doesn’t want him to go but for Emmett it is a great adventure. Despite warnings from his southern family members, Emmett behaves like his usual cheeky, chirpy self when he goes off alone to buy sweets from the local store. The hatchet faced woman (Haley Bennett) serving him takes offence and as a result her husband and his cousin abduct Emmett from the family’s house, torture him, murder him and dump his body in a ditch.
We never see the physical violence taking pace, just the effects in the heartbreaking scene where Mamie first sees her son’s mutilated body and then decides to display him in an open coffin in the church for the world to see.
Deadwyler as Mamie is totally compelling and emotionally draining. She gives a giant of a performance which almost sets the screen alight. You literally cannot take your eyes off her as she compels you to experience with her every step in her tragic journey. She deserves to win every award going.
Although Deadwyler dominates the film, director Chinonye Chukwu has a strong cast to support her. Young Hall as Emmett, whose youthful joy in life in the early scenes remains with us throughout. Frankie Faison as Mamie’s estranged father, who accompanies her to Mississippi for the trial of the murderers and Sean Patrick Thomas as her finance.
There’s also Whoopi Goldberg, who as producer has been developing this story for years and who also plays Mamie’s mother; Bennett, icy as the lying store clerk woman, who was responsible for Emmett’s murder and John Douglas Thompson as the preacher head of the Mississippi branch of the family, who is heartbreaking in his guilt about the fact that he was powerless to stop the murderers taking Emmett away, as they would have shot him and his family in cold blood without hope of retribution.
As a result of her tragic experience the real life Mamie became an important campaigner for black civil rights and justice. Her story is not well known in the same way that many others are. Chukwu’s powerful and deeply felt film is set to give her the place in history that she deserves.