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Danielle Deadwyler in “Till”: A New Gold Standard

Until now, I always felt that Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” was probably the finest female lead I had ever seen in a motion picture. But with the recently released “Till,” Danielle Deadwyler sets a new gold standard for what an actress can accomplish onscreen. Yet, her astonishing work is only one of many sensational

Until now, I always felt that Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” was probably the finest female lead I had ever seen in a motion picture.

But with the recently released “Till,” Danielle Deadwyler sets a new gold standard for what an actress can accomplish onscreen.

Yet, her astonishing work is only one of many sensational performances in this gripping drama about the 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi.

And what is equally remarkable: Director Chinonye Chukwu takes an extraordinarily restrained approach. With long silences and courageous close-ups at moments of tension and terror, she carefully clamps down on the inherent melodrama in this shattering saga of racial violence and injustice.

Indeed, she does not even show the lynching directly; yet that scene, along with many others in this amazing film, generates a cyclone of emotion; it’s as though Chukwu knew this explosive story — and her tremendous cast — could do its own work, and all she had to do was stand back and let it happen.

Only son of Chicago single-mom Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett was visiting relatives in the town of Money, MS, when he allegedly smiled at, flirted with, or perhaps even whistled at a young white wife in the local grocery. A few nights later he was forcibly taken from his great-uncle’s home, then tortured, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, where his body washed ashore three days later.

Till’s devastated mother then made the shocking and audacious decision to hold an open-casket funeral — and to allow photographs of her son’s badly bloated and disfigured remains. The resulting horror and publicity called nationwide attention to the treatment of blacks in the Deep South — and, according to Wikipedia, it helped pave the way for the American Civil Rights movement, which kicked off only three months later in Montgomery, Alabama.

Deadwyler plays Mamie, cycling through every conceivable emotion from joy and tenderness to howling grief and implacable fury. Jalyn Hall is letter-perfect as Emmett, and the impressive ensemble is rounded out by Tosin Cole as civil rights hero Medgar Evers; Sean Patrick Thomas as Mamie’s faithful beau; Frankie Faison as her father; and, doing some of her best work ever, an almost unrecognizable Whoopi Goldberg as Emmett’s grandma. But really, there is not a false note anywhere in the cast. Even the briefly appearing Money sheriff, the trial judge and Haley Bennett as Emmett’s accuser, are all first-rate.

Period detail is likewise terrific, and the whole thing rides beautifully on a lush and throbbing score by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski.

If there’s a weakness anywhere in this film, it is only in not seeming to provide much closure at the end. Once the trial is over, Chukwu and her two co-writers don’t seem to know where to go with the story; but then, Mamie was emotionally cast adrift as well. The sense of “is that all there is?” must certainly be intentional — for it leaves us sharing the characters’ loss and frustration, along with the feeling that there is still more work to be done.

With a whopping 98% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, “Till” is by far the best film I have seen this year; I would love it if Deadwyler scored an Oscar for her unparalleled performance in Chukwu’s masterpiece.

But even if she doesn’t — hers is one for the ages.

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