At least two of the attractions introduced at this year’s New York Film Festival—Till and Tár—have settled locally into theater runs and have now opened nationally.
Behind those decidedly sparse titles are characters so vividly advanced that their performers have, in review after review, consistently been predicted to be Oscar rivals for Best Actress in the spring.
Cate Blanchett, already a two-time Academy Award winner (once, in The Aviator, as Kate Hepburn), will be going for her third Oscar as Lydia Tár, an iconic symphony conductor unraveling into scandal and disrepute. But it may be an uphill climb for Blanchett given the radiant reviews Danielle Deadwyler has garnered for her portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago child lynched by white supremacists during a trip to Mississippi in 1955. On Tuesday both Blanchett and Deadwyler were nominated for Outstanding Lead Performance at the Gotham Awards, considered one of the first stops on the awards-season journey towards the Oscars.
The directors and casts of both Till and Tár spoke about their work in post-screening panels at NYFF. Interestingly for both directors — Chinoye Chukwu with Till, Todd Field with Tár — this is their third feature film.
For Field — who both wrote and directed Tár — it’s also his first film in 16 years, after In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2006. His goal this time was to examine how power and privilege invite hedonistic entitlement. To make that point, he explained, he zeroed in on the title character, “someone who happened to be at the top of a power structure, but she could have been anything—the head of a multinational corporation or another arts foundation, or you name it.”
Field was a jazz trombonist in his youth, but took a crash course in classical music from conductor John Mauceri, who had been for many years Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistant. The fictional Lydia Tár also had Lenny for a mentor, and having enjoyed prestige posts like conducting the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, she is now in her seventh year of leading the Berlin Philharmonic where she is poised to deliver her much-anticipated version of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and go on a tour for her coffee-table book, Tár on Tár.
Once oriented to the classical world, Field’s writing went fast. He turned in his script to his producers in three months, and when they asked if he had anyone in mind for the lead, he lied: “No. Absolutely not.”
The truth is he had written the entire script with Blanchett in mind. They had taken a meeting a decade before about a Joan Didion project that didn’t come off. “It was a very meaningful meeting for me,” Field recalled. “The way she looks at the narrative is holistic. I really wanted to collaborate with her. I put a Post-It on my desk that said ‘Cate,’ and I’d show up at my desk and say, ‘Good morning, Cate,’ and get to work.”
When Field’s producers began a list of casting possibilities, his wife said, “You’d better call Cate.” He did. “We got in a conversation and worked for a year before we were on the ground in Berlin.”
Blanchett — who’d spent the decade since her first meeting with Field making 29 features, 10 TV series and seven shorts — told the NYFF audience that she’d been “altered” by Field’s previous films, In the Bedroom and Little Children. “It’s a rarity that he leaves home and goes and makes a movie, so it’s going to be a very considered event. He doesn’t put himself out there unless he has something to say, and this film has so much to say. There are so many questions here. It asks far more questions than it answers.
“I’d never read a screenplay like it. It was like a musical score—so rhythmic. Every character had their own intonation and dynamics. There was an aching sort of metaphysical tragedy at the center of it.”
The tragedy at the center of Till is of a very different nature, of course, though writer-director Chinoye Chukwu shifts the focus from Emmitt Till’s brutal slaying to how the murder of her son transforms Mamie Till-Mobley into a civil-rights crusader.
Chukwu explained how she came to the project after the movie that made her the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019. “Three years ago—not long after I’d finished my last film, Clemency—I met with the producers,” she said. “I felt they really respected my artistry. I told them, ‘First and foremost, the only way I’d be interested in telling this story is if I rewrite the script and focus my directorial vision towards this being a story of Mamie’s emotional journey. The narrative is going to be through her lens.
“Then I said I didn’t want to show any physical violence inflicted on Black bodies. That was a non-negotiable for me. Again, ‘Okay.’ The third thing I wanted was to begin and end in a place of joy and love. In addition to being Mamie’s journey, it’s also a love story between Mamie and her son. They gave me the space and creative freedom to tell this the way I believe it needed to be told.”
“They” includes James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli; her husband, Broadway producer Frederick M. Zollo; Keith Beauchamp, whose 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till helped prompt the FBI to reopen the case of Emmett Till’s murder, and who did the first draft of the screenplay for Till; and Whoopi Goldberg, who also plays Emmett Till’s grandmother.
Goldberg’s chief reason for being aboard the producing team: “For me, this story is the same as The Diary of Anne Frank. This is truth, this is what happened, and we want you to know so you can make up your mind and say, ‘This systemic racism really affects all of us.’” She added a secondary motivation: “Also, there’s Fred and Barbara. I’ve worked with them before. They don’t do crap. I’ve done some crap in my career so I’d like to be associated with non-crap. That’s the other reason I took it on.”
Deadwyler, whose heart-wrenching portrayal of Mamie is tempered with twin measures of dignity and restraint, knew what was being asked of her: “This is one of those experiences where you know you have an extreme amount of weight you have to bear. There’s no other way to engage it.
“I’ve known Mamie and Emmett Till’s story since I was a kid in elementary school. My mother was born in 1955. We did a deep dive into 1955—academically, poetry, music, archival footage, photos. Mamie’s memoir was my Bible. All those things swirled daily in the months building up to the production and all through the production. That’s my experience, building and living with it.”
One reporter asked how relevant this film is today. Goldberg threw the question back at him: “You know how relevant this is today. It’s more relevant every day. It’s important we recognize what institutional racism looks like. It’s imperative we say, ‘I don’t think we want to do this anymore.’ We recognize we didn’t like it when we saw Trayvon Martin lose his life. We recognize we didn’t like it when we saw Breanna Taylor lose her life. We knew we didn’t like it when we saw George Floyd lose his life. And now we’ve taken you to Point A and say, ‘From here spreads all of this.’”