Saturday night saw the world premiere of “Till” at the 60th New York Film Festival, with the audience filling up Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall to watch the harrowing new film from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu about Mamie Till-Mobley’s journey from grief to action in wake of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, being lynched while on vacation in Mississippi in 1955.
The movie is Chukwu’s first film since the Sundance-winning drama “Clemency,” which also made a dent at Lincoln Center by opening its New Directors/New Films festival in 2019. Chukwu’s first studio effort further elevates her profile as a director of grim-but-stirring dramas with modern-day resonance.
One of two major studio awards titles premiering at NYFF (the other is “She Said”), “Till” landed at the festival with the promise of an emotionally resonant look at racism and resilience built around its central performance. Buzz has been strong for Best Actress contender Danielle Deadwyler, who has had a series of breakout roles in the past year with “The Harder They Fall” and “Station Eleven.”
Indeed, “Till” shines most whenever Deadwyler is on screen. Little details like the fluttering of her eyes when Mamie is on the witness stand sets the actress apart from other contenders in the category. Deadwyler elevates the sentimental material, especially when Mamie becomes the primary focus of the movie. In many ways a standard period piece, “Till” is so elevated by Deadwyler’s performance that she’s not just a contender; she’s the movie’s best shot at any awards consideration. Also notable: three of the last five winners were playing real life people (the other two were Frances McDormand’s recent wins).
The Best Actress race is tight this year, but Deadwyler dominates “Till” in a way that gives her an edge. She has a much larger role in the movie than Michelle Williams in “The Fabelmans,” and is more of a traditional awards draw than Ana de Armas’ work in “Blonde.” Other contenders, like Cate Blanchett in “TÁR,” may strike some Academy voters as too ostentatious. Awards season loves a good breakout story, and Deadwyler takes that slot by default.
The film itself doesn’t exceed the expectations set by the many Civil Rights era biopics we’ve seen over the years. It withholds depicting much of the brutality that Emmett Till was subjected to, but does hit the rest of the known beats in establishing just how bad the American South was for Black people. At best, “Till” is a longshot for Best Picture and Best Director, but does have potential for a Best Original Screenplay nomination as many of the promising films still left to screen, like “She Said,” are adaptations. However, the way in which the script introduces a prominent historical figure is a lowlight (think of how Marvel movies reveal a new superhero).
The movie has a handful of other supporting roles with potential to gain traction as the season goes on. Veteran actor John Douglas Thompson has one heartbreaking scene that is akin to the moment in “Doubt” that netted Viola Davis her first Oscar nomination. Actress Jayme Lawson, who was most recently seen as the scheming wife to King Ghezo in “The Woman King,” also has a poignant moment opposite Deadwyler that will resonate.
Below the line, the best bets for “Till” are for its costume design and makeup and hairstyling, as those Oscar categories tend to award similar period pieces (most recently, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). The movie also has a Best Original Song contender from this year’s Best R&B Performance Grammy winner Jazmine Sullivan, “Stand Up.”
All in all, “Till” serves as another solid addition to a crowded awards season slate for UA/MGM that already includes “Women Talking” and “Bones & All,” both of which are also playing at New York Film Festival this year following successful launches at earlier fall festivals.