On Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, millions of Americans watched the conclusion of “Women of the Movement,” ABC’s six-episode limited series on the grisly murder of Emmett Till and how his mother’s fight for justice influenced the Civil Rights Movement.
Aired over the course of three weeks in January 2022, “Women of the Movement” was created by Marissa Jo Cerar and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The miniseries focuses on Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Tony Award-winning actress Adrienne Warren) and her seemingly futile pursuit of justice for her murdered son (“Space Jam: A New Legacy” actor Cedric Joe).
“RED PILL” writer and director Tonya Pinkins portrays Mamie’s mother, Alma, an ever-present source of support throughout the episodes. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” actor Ray Fisher also has a recurring role as Gene Mobley, the steadfast man who eventually married Mamie Till.
Each episode of “Women of the Movement” begins with a warning that content may be triggering due to historical and current-day traumatic experiences. This warning certainly is an apt one. The miniseries does not shy away from exposing viewers to any of the realities facing African Americans in the 1940s and 50s, whether that be casual use of racial slurs or any other mistreatments that were prevalent at the time.
Emmett Till was a 14-year old African American boy from Chicago, Illinois who took a fateful trip down to Money, Mississippi with his great-uncle Mose Wright (acclaimed “A Different World” and “The Wire” actor Glynn Turman) in August 1955. After entering a neighborhood grocery, Emmett found himself accused of harassing a 21-year old store clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott in her first television role). Precise details on what actually occurred are unknown; however, it is noted that Bryant would later speak to a historian and admit that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”.
A deep-seated fear amongst Southern White men of the time was that Black men (commonly viewed as aggressive brutes) were a constant threat to White women, who were seen as delicate and pure. Bryant, well aware of the power her accusation held, informed her husband Roy Bryant (“Struck By Lightning” actor Carter Jenkins) and his half-brother J.W. Milam (“The Walking Dead” actor Chris Coy) of Emmett Till’s supposed transgressions. Four days after Emmett visited the store, the two men appeared early in the morning at Mose Wright’s home and abducted the boy. Emmett Till was savagely beaten, shot in the head, and then thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His disfigured, waterlogged body would not be found until days later.
Due to the violent nature of her son’s death and the state of his remains, Mamie Till-Mobley was advised to have a closed-casket funeral. She refused and boldly allowed thousands of Americans to see a glimpse of the horrors being done to Black bodies in the South.
The miniseries is based on the book “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement” by Devery S. Anderson. After learning about Emmett Till’s death, Anderson became engrossed by the subject and contacted Till’s mother. The two stayed in contact until her own passing in 2003. Anderson compiled the most comprehensive documentation thus far about the investigation of the Till murder in his book, which was published in 2015. The following year, the federal government reopened the case.
“Women of the Movement” also draws from Mamie Till-Mobley’s own autobiography, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America”, which Till-Mobley co-wrote with Christopher Benson, an author and journalism professor at Northwestern University. Benson went on to work as a consultant on “Women of the Movement”, which premiered on the anniversary of Mamie Till-Mobley’s death.
“Women of the Movement” comes to American viewers at a time when many are already embroiled in discussions of race. There are passionate debates about how citizens should best be educated about racial inequality, political stand-offs in passing voting rights legislation, and even popular social media campaigns calling for studio accountability over workplace misconduct such as #IStandWithRayFisher (which coincidentally supports one of the miniseries’ own actors).
The time slot given to the miniseries is just as befitting of its purpose. Despite the highly mature subject material, ABC aired episodes in pairs on Thursday evenings, starting at 7pm. This enabled the network to reach viewers just settling down on the couch after dinner and helped to facilitate important, oftentimes difficult conversations about race for many families.
The act of simply describing Emmett Till to a child is a challenging one. His murder is one of the most unsettling tragedies in American history, largely due to the victim’s own young age and the overwhelming lack of consequences for his killers. As I turned on “Women of the Movement” that first night, I wondered how many families made the choice to change the channel simply due to the fact that their children were too young for the subject material.
I watched “Women of the Movement” through the eyes of a Black woman in America, a new mother of a beautiful baby boy, and a teacher of students around the same age as Emmett Till at the time of his murder. This miniseries was not an easy watch. Undoubtedly, many viewers will feel everything from righteous anger to empathetic sorrow as they watch Adrienne Warren’s wonderfully evocative performance as Mamie Till-Mobley.
For those watching who are familiar with the story of Emmett Till and who have seen the famous image of his disfigured face thanks to Mamie Till-Mobley’s courageous decision to open her son’s casket, even the idea of seeing his body may fill them with some apprehension. The gruesome, disquieting sight of Emmett Till’s corpse will surely remain in viewers’ minds even when not on-screen.
“Don’t let people forget his age. It’s important.”Reporter Simeon Booker to Mamie Till
“Women of the Movement” writer Marissa Jo Cerar makes certain to highlight how the attempt to erase Emmett Till’s age from the narrative surrounding his death impacted the results of his killers’ trial. The night that Emmett is abducted, Mose Wright begs Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam to punish the boy less severely due to him being only fourteen.
After Mamie’s first press interview, Jet magazine reporter Simeon Booker (“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers” actor Miles Fowler) advises her to keep Emmett’s age at the forefront of the national conversation. This advice is proved prescient; the lawyer representing Bryant and Milam (“American Crime” actor Timothy Hutton) purposefully calls Emmett a man throughout the trial proceedings. Indeed, one of the most frustrating tactics used by the defense is the insistence that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was not Emmett Till’s at all.
There is something deeply unnerving about hearing certain characters in the miniseries treat the brutal slaying of a child not with sympathy, but with dismissal and gaslighting. The continuous description throughout the trial of Emmett as an arrogant man making unwanted advances toward Carolyn Bryant is provided in sharp contrast with the boy who calls out for his mother when facing death.
“The death of my son has shown me that whatever happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of all of us.”Mamie Till-Mobley addressing rally attendees at St. Matthew’s Methodist Church
“Women of the Movement” excels at its task of shining a light onto the dark parts of our nation’s history while simultaneously recognizing the undeniable impact Mamie Till-Mobley’s actions had on the Civil Rights Movement.
Whether by the attention to detail given to the sets and costuming or faithful recreation of famous photographs, it is evident that the cast and crew of “Women of the Movement” understood the monumental responsibility they were taking on by bringing Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till’s story to life on-screen.
Activist and poet Maya Angelou once said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Many Americans would argue that we are still seeing incidents similar to Emmett Till’s murder and his killers’ subsequent acquittal play out again and again. I applaud “Women of the Movement” for educating its viewers on this dark part of our nation’s past and hope to see many more stories concerning Black History on television and on the big screen.
These stories should not only focus on the daunting obstacles overcome by African-Americans but also the countless accomplishments achieved. Too many Americans know too little history and lack perspective on the state of the world today. It’s time for that to change.
ABC’s “Women of the Movement” and the accompanying documentary “Let the World See” are available now for streaming on Hulu.