How “Women of the Movement” fulfills Mamie Till’s “Prophecy”

Before Trayvon Martin, before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery and before George Floyd, there was Emmett Till.

In recent years, the killings of these black Americans and numerous other fiery sparks that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and culminated in the racial reckoning of 2020. Such incidents, however, were preceded by another startling crime decades earlier: the 1955 kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Till at Jim Crow South after he was accused of whistling a white woman in a grocery store.

This horrific act and the determined struggle of Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to punish those responsible, were a catalyst for the formation of the civil rights movement that grew nationally in the 1960s. But while many key events in the history of the movement have been explored and dramatized by film and television in documentary films, Till’s assassination was not the focus of attention. The brutality of his death – he was tortured and lynched – and the lingering questions that hampered the pursuit of justice for years made the murder out of the reach of Hollywood.

ABC is stepping into this gap this week with its limited series “Women of the Movement”, which is making Till and his mother appear in a new light. The six-episode series premiered on Thursday and aired for three consecutive weeks, and is one of the most powerful – and potentially risky – racing-related projects ever developed by a television network. It also comes at a time when racial tensions are particularly volatile, fueled by the rise of white nationalism and an ongoing debate between those who wish to face America’s racist past and those who wish to downplay it.

That context made Women of the Movement even more personal and warm for creator and executive producer Marissa Jo Cerar. In a recent Zoom interview, Cerar, whose authoring is The Handmaid’s Tale, got emotional when asked about the project’s relevance to recent headlines about racism and the tragic deaths of black people by others.

“These stories keep happening,” she said, wiping away her tears. “Our people are always being murdered. It’s so terrifying to look at social media and see a certain group of people instantly criminalize victims. It’s devastating. You only see a corpse. You do not see the extinguished light. I want people to see Emmett before he was a victim or a martyr, just like I hope they could see Trayvon or George Floyd or – there are too many names to list. “

Cerar became more composed when she added, “They were babies, they were people, they were members of their communities. I just want people to see their humanity. “

Adrienne Warren, who plays Till-Mobley, said the time is right for Women of the Movement, reflecting Hollywood’s growing awareness and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Adrienne Warren as Mamie Till-Mobley in “Women of the Movement”.

(Eli Joshua Ade / ABC)

“It shows that our industry is changing,” said Warren, who won a Tony Award for portraying rock icon Tina Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. “When has something like this been seen on network television? So far, our industry has not been ready for this. Until recently, we weren’t allowed to tell these stories in a nuanced way. The gatekeepers open doors so that our stories are told in a way that portrays us as human beings. “

Coincidentally, “Women of the Movement” also arrives when the Till case is back on the news. The US Department of Justice announced last month that it was finalizing its investigation into Till’s case without charges being brought against Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose alleged encounter with Till led to his murder. The department had reopened the investigation after Donham was quoted in a 2017 book as lying about the incident.

The announcement hit Cerar hard: “It was kind of devastating to get so close to the premiere. One wonders – what if we had waited another month? Could the show have made any difference or produced a different result? I’m trying to hide it. The more people learn about Emmett, Mamie, and all the other heroes we feature, the better. I hope that despite everything, it opens hearts and minds. “

Till’s cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker, told the Times, “I’m not surprised how it turned out, but we’ve done what we should and have pursued our purpose and purpose in life. Nothing prevents us from doing that. “

Warren added, “I believe in divine timing. If justice has not been served in this way, it now gives us even more a platform to ensure that this story is properly told and that people know about it. “

After Till was killed, his mother ordered that his coffin remain open during the funeral. Jet magazine published photos of the teen’s brutal body. The reaction to the shocking images turned out to be a turning point for the civil rights movement.

According to the weighting of the topic, ABC is heavily involved in the project. The premiere will air with limited commercial breaks, and will be followed each week by an hour-long episode of the ABC News documentary series “Let the World See,” which examines Till-Mobley’s life and activism.

A boy is sitting at the foot of a tree and reading a book.

Cedric Joe as Emmett Till on Women of the Movement.

(Eli Joshua Ade / ABC)

Among those starring in the documentaries are former first lady Michelle Obama, rapper Common, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and writer-scholar Michael Eric Dyson. Actress Nia Long (“Love Jones”) reads excerpts from Till-Mobley’s memoir “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America”.

“Women of the Movement” executive producers include Will Smith, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the first hour.

Still, Cerar conceded that audiences, at least initially, might hesitate to see a historical drama about the vicious murder of an innocent black youth. As the death of Floyd and others hit the headlines and sparked global protests, a number of script projects, including HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” Amazon’s “Them: Covenant,” and the Oscar-winning short, “Two Distant Strangers,” were over a young black man who got caught in a deadly time warp with a racist police officer raised questions about when and how the portrayal of racist violence will merge into the realm of “trauma porn”.

“There might be people who say, ‘Do we need to hear about another racially motivated murder?'” Cerar said. “What I’m going to ask is that you keep watching.”

She stressed that Women of the Movement would highlight the emotional and inspirational elements of Till-Mobley’s journey: “This is not just a murder story or a civil rights story. I would just look at it from the mother’s point of view and consider it a true crime family drama. We get to know people before the tragedy so that we can better identify with them. It’s a boy’s growing up. It’s a woman’s growing up. “

Cerar’s knowledge of Till and his story was patchy until she started writing the Fox drama “Shots Fired” in 2016. Created by Prince-Bythewood and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood, the series looked at the investigation of a couple of racist accused and teenage shootings in North Carolina.

Cerar said, “There was a photo of Emmett Till outside the writer’s room and we had to walk by it every day. While working on the series, I was researching the story. One day Reggie and Gina’s little son Cassius read us his poem about meeting Emmett and Trayvon Martin in heaven. It was a real turning point for us. ”

Watkins said Women of the Movement should be seen as a project that will help bridge racial gaps: “Mamie’s prophecy was that Emmett didn’t die for nothing. This broadcast is a step in that direction. He still speaks to us from the grave. “

“Women of the Movement”

Where: ABC
When: Thursday, January 6th, 8 p.m.
Assessment: TV-MA-LV (possibly unsuitable for children under 17 years of age with references to rough language and violence)

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