In the preface to his 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie, partly based on the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta in 1955, James Baldwin wrote: “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”
Baldwin’s claim has been borne out by history.
The horror of this Black boy’s abduction, torture and death – over an imagined slight to a white store worker, Carolyn Bryant – was a global scandal. Yet, on 23 September 1955, the murderers – Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam – were acquitted by an all-white jury in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, after only 67 minutes’ deliberation.
Protected against double jeopardy, the two men brazenly declared their responsibility in Look magazine in 1956, for a fee of $4,000. Last year, a memoir by Carolyn Bryant Donham – tastelessly entitled I Am More than Wolf Whistle – was leaked, prompting fresh calls for her indictment, at the age of 88, on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter. In August 2022, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to press for her indictment.
It is now all but certain that no convictions in the case of Emmett Till will ever be secured. But Baldwin’s argument has much broader application. Though the world condemned not only his killers but the white supremacist culture in the Deep South that ensured their immunity from punishment, the pattern of behaviour continued – and continues to this day.
When Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American from Miami Gardens, Florida, was shot dead in February 2012 by Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter activists identified symmetries with the Emmett Till case – not least when Zimmerman was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in June 2013.
And when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May 2020, Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon was immediately struck by how little had changed in 65 years. “The tactics that were used were still an atrocity,” she said. “It was still a lynching, but we were able to see and view it”.
Floyd’s bereaved relatives were similarly struck by the bleak resonance. When former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in April 2021, Floyd’s brother, Philonise, said of Till: “People forgot about him. But he was the first George Floyd.”
In this sense, Chinonye Chukwu’s fine new film, Till (general release, 6 January) is as much an intervention in contemporary social and political discourse as it is a historical drama. Best known for the outstanding Clemency (2019), the Nigerian-American director was determined to tell the story in depth and detail – and, remarkably, to be the first movie-maker to do so in a mainstream feature film.
“A lot of people are saying that they thought they knew the story, but actually you don’t,” she told the Guardian in December. “So I think we’re doing a really good job of communicating that, and hopefully more and more people will receive that message.” (For more background, the best and most thorough book on the case is Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till.)
Crucial to the film’s impact is its first third, in which we are introduced to the young Emmett (brilliantly played by Jalyn Hall), a carefree boy with a mild stutter, still on the cusp of adolescence, called “Bo” by his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, also superb). When he leaves Chicago to spend time with relatives in Mississippi, she warns him that the racism he encounters will be of a different character to what he is used to in the city. A truly terrible sense of foreboding looms over his smiling agreement to be careful and to “be small down there”.
The descent of Till from familial normality – Whoopi Goldberg plays Mamie’s mother, Alma, with Sean Patrick Thomas as her future husband Gene Mobley – to violent nightmare is precipitous and necessarily disturbing to watch. Pre-empting the risk of voyeurism or exploitation, intentional or otherwise, Chukwu insisted that she would not “show physical violence inflicted on Black bodies.”
The corollary, however, is that she respects the agonising and hugely consequential decision that Mamie made in 1955 when she saw her son’s appallingly maimed body and insisted not only that his casket be kept open but also that photographs be taken so that the world could see what had happened. In the movie, a relative at the memorial service says: “I can’t look, Mamie.” To which Emmett’s mother replies: “We have to.” So too does Chukwu’s audience in 2023.
The film’s third act follows Mamie’s evolution from bereaved mother to civil rights campaigner, her dealings with the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) – also murdered in 1963 – and the rage she experiences as the charade of Milam and Bryant’s trial unfolds. Deadwyler’s work here puts her squarely in line for an Oscar nomination.
As Isabel Wilkerson observes in her masterpiece, Caste: The Lies that Divide Us, lynching, after the abolition of slavery, became the primary means by which whites “kept the lowest caste in its place… a lynching every three or four days in the first four decades of the twentieth century.” It is fitting, then, that the US Federal Antilynching Act was named in recognition and memory of Emmett Till.
What is truly shocking is that this bill did not become law until last March, almost seven decades after his murder. His mother saw the point as do the makers of Till: we have no right to avert our gaze.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Pale Blue Eye (selected cinemas; Netflix, 6 January)
Based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, this superior thriller set in the Hudson Valley in 1830 pits retired New York police constable Gus Landor (Christian Bale) against a killer who has brought horror to West Point military academy.
Brought in by the scowling Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall), who fears that the carnage will be exploited by the academy’s enemies in Washington, Landor finds an unexpected sidekick in a bohemian misfit cadet: one Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Landor is impressed by the young man’s poetic intuition and taste for the chase, as well as his evident brilliance.
Poe did indeed attend West Point briefly, and the plot device gives director Scott Cooper plenty of opportunities to stitch in references to the writer’s later work: the hearts carved out of the corpses are a clear allusion to Poe’s most famous story, The Tell-Tale Heart (which supplies the movie’s title), and there are also stand-out references to the poems The Raven and Lenore.
To the eeriness of this snowbound whodunnit is added a flavour of the dark arts, with Robert Duvall supplying a cameo as Jean Pepe, an expert in the occult. Gillian Anderson is terrific as Julia Marquis, a West Point grande dame, wife of the academy’s surgeon, Dr Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) – a couple who clearly have plenty to hide.
I enjoyed the final twist, but the film’s real strength is the partnership between Bale and Melling, which acts as a crucible for Poe’s emerging genius – and also forces the scales of youth to fall from his artist’s eyes.
The US and the Holocaust (BBC Four, 9 January)
Ken Burns is not only the world’s greatest documentary-maker; he is also one of the most significant contemporary chroniclers of American culture, society and history (see Creative Sensemaker, 24 June, 2021).
In this six-and-half-hour, three-part series – once again, in collaboration with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein – he tackles the complex question of the United States and its response to the Shoah. As the historian Rebecca Erbelding says in the first episode: “We are challenged as Americans, we’re challenged as parents, as children, we’re challenged as neighbours and as friends, to think about what we would have done, what we could have done, what we should have done.”
As Burns shows, the notion that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was little-known in America before the war is nonsense. And – though the US admitted more Jewish refugees than any other nation – it could easily have done more. The turning away in 1939 of the German liner St Louis, carrying 937 Jewish passengers is only the most infamous example of an institutionalised reluctance to limit American generosity to those fleeing Hitler’s Europe.
As Deborah Lipstadt, the present US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, argues, bombing the extermination camps would also have sent “a message” to the Nazis that “‘we know what you are doing. We cannot abide what you are doing”.
What emerges most powerfully from this superb series is the enduring duality of America’s soul: on the one hand, the pride of a self-proclaimed nation of immigrants; on the other, the stockade mentality of a deeply nativist society, rooted in slavery, and determined to preserve white racial supremacy. As Burns demonstrates with characteristic lucidity, this fundamental ethical tension remains, to the day, central to the American experience.
Peter von Kant (selected cinemas; Curzon Home Cinema)
Like Living, Oliver Hermanus’s recent remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 November, 2022), François Ozon’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is set in the same year as the original movie: in this case, 1972.
Instead of Margit Carstensen’s narcissistic, boozy fashion designer, we have Denis Ménochet as a narcissistic, boozy filmmaker, living alone with his silent factotum Karl (Stefan Crepon). As in the original, he is visited by his waspish best friend Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani) who introduces him to her new discovery – in this case, the young and ambitious Amir (Khalil Gharbia).
Peter is instantly infatuated by Amir, who moves into his apartment and becomes the star of his movies, his muse and an increasingly petulant lover. Though true to the queasy claustrophobia of the original, Ozon’s film is more of a romp, delighting in the camp and kitsch of the director’s chaotic ménage.
Peter is clearly modelled on Fassbinder himself, who died in 1982 aged 37 from a drug overdose, while Amir is almost certainly based on El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder’s lover and the star of his masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Hanna Schygulla, who played Karin, the object of Petra’s obsession in the original, returns to play Peter’s mother.
Yet this is not only a film for obsessive cineastes or devotees of the New German Cinema. Ozon’s playful touch and Ménochet’s magnificent lurches between tragedy and comedy ensure that Peter von Kant is full of delights for viewers who have yet to see a single Fassbinder movie.
Spare – Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex (Bantam, 10 January)
Park for a moment the question of where this book will leave the relationship between its author, his brother, his father and the institution of monarchy itself. Whatever its merits as a book – step forward seasoned ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer – its very publication has cultural significance.
You will look for true precedents in vain. True, Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography of Diana was a memoir-by-stealth, in that it was packed with detail that the princess had recorded on secret tapes. But – as sensational as the book’s impact undoubtedly was – it was not an explicitly acknowledged autobiography, trailed by interviews with the princess on ITV and CBS News (as Harry’s will be on Sunday).
George VI was appalled that his brother the Duke of Windsor – formerly Edward VIII – chose to publish his 1951 memoir, A King’s Story, 15 years after his abdication and (as it turned out) only months before his successor’s death. But the book was upsetting to the reigning King rather than a multi-media challenge to him, the heir to the throne and the entire royal system.
After six episodes of Netflix’s Harry & Meghan, one might ask how much new there will be for Harry to say. Plenty, I suspect – though I doubt its 416 pages will change many minds. What is certain is that this bitter saga – an extraordinary brew of ancient and modern, personal trauma and institutional drama, private rivalry and full-brown culture war – is far from over.
Sugar Street – Jonathan Dee (Corsair)
Seriously under-appreciated in this country, the American writer Jonathan Dee is a consistently fascinating prospector in the frontier lands of fiction, always looking for ways of mixing up literary aesthetics and genre templates.
In Sugar Street, his eighth novel, he takes the noir sensibility, adds some of the conventions of the American road story, and embarks upon nothing less than an exploration of 21st-century existential angst. The unnamed narrator has $168,048 in cash to his name, and is seeking a new life entirely off grid.
Though he quotes Thoreau, his destination is not a rural idyll but the anonymity of a modest apartment in a postindustrial city, where he interacts as little as possible with his profoundly offensive landlady, Autumn (“you look kind of like a sex offender”, she tells him). He ditches his cards, his phone and anything with a microchip and steers clear of all forms of surveillance (even a library visit presents challenges).
Thus sequestered, he reflects upon everything he hates about hypermodernity: “It’s hard to draw breath in this world – to feed yourself, to move from place to place – without doing damage of some kind. Environmental damage, human damage. It’s hard to lighten your footprint.” Democracy, capitalism and liberalism, he believes, are “all in the lurid end-stages of their own failure”.
He despises the notion that he might simply be perceived as an aggregation of data, “the idea that every little choice I’d made, however thoughtless or dumb, was now part of my history”. He craves escape from the Babel of digital life: “Just stop talking, stop posting, stop tweeting. Shut up.” Capsizing E.M. Forster’s dictum, he declares: “Only disconnect.”
Dee’s brilliance is to weave all this contemplation into the wiring of a thriller – and one that grips the reader to the very last page, “I can feel time on my skin,” says the narrator, and so can we.
Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises – A.N. Wilson (Bloomsbury)
Any journalist who has worked alongside or edited A.N. Wilson can attest to his preternatural facility with language – an almost uncanny ability to produce a 900-word piece on more or less any subject at remarkable speed. In this respect, he has only been matched in recent times, I think, by the late Christopher Hitchens.
Yet it is precisely this facility that most troubles the 72-year-old novelist, biographer and commentator in this fine volume of memoirs. Has the talent that smoothed his path into Fleet Street and made him one of its fixtures distracted him from loftier artistic and intellectual work?
Wilson is too hard on himself. If he had only written his biographies of Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, and Jesus, and his books The Victorians (2002) and Dante in Love (2011) he would be an honoured citizen of the republic of letters. And he has written a great many more works of comparable excellence.
The heart of Confessions, however, is not a literary audit but an account of two relationships: his failed marriage to the older Oxford don, Katherine Duncan-Jones, and his parents’ miserable decades together. Wilson’s father, Norman, rose to be managing director of Wedgwood, and is powerfully portrayed in these pages – a proud practitioner of centuries-old craftsmanship who was dumped by his company, his life reduced to an “anti-capitalist parable.”
The memoir is full of anecdote and gossip – who knew that the young Nigella Lawson’s diet consisted almost entirely of mashed potatoes? – as well as more serious contemplation of Wilson’s fluctuating relationship with faith and, after years of resentment, his touching dedication to his ex-wife in her last years as she struggled with dementia (“It is hard to see how you can still believe in a soul when you have seen unraveling on that pitiless scale”). This is, one hopes, only the first volume of what might well become a classic English literary memoir.
Every Loser – Iggy Pop (6 January)
Four years after the jazz-influenced Free, James Newell Osterberg Jr. returns with an album that, in its finest moments, recalls the glory of Raw Power (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year).
The stylistic shift is familiar to those who have followed the long pilgrimage of Iggy Pop, and the mercurial oscillation between the louche nightclub crooner of The Idiot (1977) and the “street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” of ‘Search and Destroy’.
Produced by Andrew Watt, Every Loser is very much in the latter category, and all the better for it. In 11 tracks and only 36 minutes, Iggy launches a blistering sonic assault that would be hailed as “a vibrant new voice on the indie-punk scene” if we did not know that the man responsible was 75 years old and the godfather of the entire genre.
Recruiting Guns N’ Roses’ bass player Duff McKagan and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, he makes a joke of his age in ‘Neo Punk’ (“My hair is blue and my prescription too”), as well as his financial security (“Emotionally I am a celebrity / I don’t have to sing, I’ve got publishing”). On ‘Comments’ he mocks social media (“Sell your stock in Zuckerberg and run/ Buy a passport to the end of fun”) – though adding: “Yeah, I’m lookin’ for a soulmate in those comments.” And ‘Frenzy’, the first single release from the album, is pure, raucous punk (“..shut up and love me ’cause fun is my buddy/ All the sharks in the sea are waiting on me”).
“The music will beat the shit out of you,” Iggy said when announcing Every Loser in November. “I’m the guy with no shirt who rocks.” He certainly is.
Adrian Sherwood Presents: Dub No Frontiers
Self-styled “sound scientist and mixologist” Adrian Sherwood has long been a force to reckon with in British music, always at the cutting edge of new genres and central to their fusion and evolution.
In this terrific collection, dedicated to Ariane “Ari Up” Forster of The Slits, with whom he worked closely until her death in 2010, and Jamaican drummer Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott, who co-produced five of the tracks before his death in 2014, Sherwood seeks to address the domination of dub by English-speaking men by curating the talents of ten female artists, all singing in other languages.
The first track ‘Love Hurts’ is sung in Mandarin by the Shanghai-based vocalist and producer, Yehaiyahan, while Russian singer Nadya Ostroff’s ‘Little Cosmonaut’, combines a deep reggae beat with the tale of a Soviet space dog. Rita Morar’s rootsy ‘Meri Awaaz Suno (Hear My Voice)’, sung in Hindi, is another highlight of an album that pulls off the remarkable double of making you think while making you want to dance.
The death of Terry Hall, aged only 63, on 18 December was a sad moment for anyone with even a glancing interest in British pop culture in the past four decades. All the more reason, then, to revisit the album that started it all, first released in 1979 and still bracingly fresh, topical and celebratory.
Released on Jerry Dammers’ 2 Tone label and produced by Elvis Costello, The Specials is now memorialised as the foundation stone of the ska revival, and several of its tracks were indeed covers (‘Monkey Man’, ‘Too Hot’ and ‘A Message to You, Rudy’). But the album was also an astonishing release of human energy, an early reflex against Thatcher’s Britain, a fierce challenge to the surging racism of the time, and one of the most imaginative bids to take the spirit of punk and turn it into something new. Manchester had the poetic, dystopian genius of Joy Division. Coventry had 2 Tone and The Specials.
‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’ remains one of the most infectious British anthems against bigotry, while ‘Too Much Too Young’ is simply one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Hall’s vocals – always arch, informed equally by bleakness, wit and idealism – were at the heart of it all, and he was only just getting started. What a loss to the music scene he did so much to shape and inspire.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Wishing you a very happy new year.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures, Getty Images, Chicago Tribune, Netflix, BBC, Scope Pictures