Rob Underhill’s Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till plays out like a documentary from the 1950s, full of talking heads and recollections about the tragic murder of young Emmett Till. An African-American boy from Chicago visiting family in a segregated Mississippi, he was kidnapped, mutilated and murdered for stepping out of his segregated spot in Southern society by supposedly flirting with a white woman at the local grocery store.
In the film, we see footage play as the various people involved in the tragedy, from Till’s family to the murderers themselves, recount the story. How does the film do this? By using public record for the information and the powerhouse performance of one actor, Mike Wiley, to portray every single role in the film.
The film is a triumph for many reasons, but one of them is going to be a polarizing point for the audience. The fact that Mike Wiley plays every role, no matter the age, race or gender, is going to be something you either embrace, or find too odd to get over. In the former, it’s easy to see what a tremendous achievement this is; if the latter, you’re just confused by the whole thing.
I’m optimistic that most will fall in and embrace the idea, however, and appreciate the performance for the brilliance it contains. It may seem a little strange at first, I’ll admit that first portrayal of Emmett Till’s mother rattled my senses slightly, but you quickly forget the novelty of the concept and get wrapped up in the film and the performance itself.
Which, for as much credit is due Wiley for tackling all the roles so deftly, credit is also due the filmmakers for crafting and combining imagery to create an almost seamless visual environment whereupon one actor plays multiple roles on screen. I mean, we’re not talking a split screen where the actor is placed on opposite sides, we’re talking multiple characters, in frame together, in different placements and angles, without a green screen halo or other tell-tale signs of layering composition. It’s just perfect; you have to remind yourself that everyone on screen is played by the same guy.
The final element that makes this film incredible is the tragic tale of Emmett Till itself. A galvanizing moment in civil rights history, Till’s murder and the subsequent trial of his murderers were the ugliest of the ugly for a segregated South. Watching the story play out, even in a faux-documentary form, is just as emotional an experience as if you were watching an actual documentary, with the real-life people, playing in front of you.
Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till is an exceptional film with multiple, powerful performances by Mike Wiley. It’s an example of an actor embracing one hell of a challenge and delivering on the other end, while at the same time never serving to undermine the true strength of the film, the story of Emmett Till.
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