Premiering January 6, ABC’s Women Of The Movement is an engaging and timely response to a less noble movement, the growing backlash against an honest account of America’s racist history. Conservatives who mangle the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. insist that while individuals are sometimes racist, America and its institutions are not. Women Of The Movement’s harrowing depiction of Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching and its aftermath puts the lie to an enduring myth.
These first six episodes represent the first installment in an anthology chronicling the civil rights movement from the perspective of women who fought on the frontlines. As Mamie Till-Mobley, Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren confronts unspeakable tragedy with strength, grace, and resilience. The first episode, “Mother And Son,” opens with a teenage Mamie Till struggling to give birth to her only child, Emmett. The callous white hospital staff is dismissive of her pain, a racial bias that persists to this day. Showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar (The Handmaid’s Tale) smartly establishes how the system was already set up against Emmett.
Emmett’s father is not in the picture, but Mamie is not alone. She has her mother Alma (Tonya Pinkins) and soon her future husband Gene Mobley (Ray Fisher), who’s a gentle, reliable presence in Mamie’s life. They are a normal, happy family but they live under the weight of an unspoken oppression: It is whiteness that they must fear and not just the threat of random violence. Stepping out of line or violating petty codes of racial conduct could have disastrous repercussions. The rules of survival are like existing as prey among predators—never make eye contact and no sudden moves.
The Tills are relatively safe in Chicago, which is hardly a post-racial utopia, but far preferable to the Jim Crow South. From our perspective, it seems illogical that Emmett’s Uncle Moses (Glynn Thurman) would invite him to spend the summer in Money, Mississippi, but the conservative Moses believes Black people can avoid trouble if they don’t “look for trouble.” Gene reminds Moses that Black Southerners have been brutally attacked because they dared register to vote. This moment plays like a horror film, and you want to scream at the TV and beg Mamie not to let Emmett leave Chicago. She ultimately trusts that her uncle can keep Emmett safe. It’s a tragic decision that haunts her for the rest of her life.
Women Of The Movement does a great job showing us the heaven inside the hell of 1950s Mississippi. The South is as close to home as the descendants of enslaved Africans can remember. When far removed from white people, it is easy to enjoy the fresh air, sprawling fields, and a refreshing swim in the lake. Sitting on the porch on a warm night, hearing the crickets chirp, there is a peacefulness not found in Chicago’s urban sprawl. But this peace can’t last for long.
Cedric Joe (Space Jam: A New Legacy) is so charming and personable as Emmett, it breaks your heart. It’s clear that his one, fatal crime is innocence. He’s been shielded from the horrors of not just the South but the American racial caste system. We’ll never fully know what happened when he encountered Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott) at her family’s grocery store. Did the 14-year-old forget Jim Crow “etiquette” and place his money in her hand rather than on the counter? Did he whistle suggestively at her? She testified that he grabbed her by the waist and made crude sexual come-ons, but she would later recant her testimony. Not even Carolyn’s worst accusations would justify Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapping Emmett from his uncle’s home and brutally murdering him. (This was after torturing him so severely his eye was gouged out.)
Mamie’s decision to hold an open casket funeral, so the world could see in graphic detail what Bryant and Milam had done to her son, brought national attention to the case. District Attorney Gerald Chatham (Gil Bellows) is a compelling example of how evil triumphs when good men do the bare minimum. He doesn’t believe Emmett deserved to die, and he thinks his killers should face justice. However, he won’t risk his own professional and personal security to obtain a conviction. The real Chatham suffered a fatal heart attack just a year after an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam.
Women Of The Movement doesn’t waste time making us sympathize with Till’s murderers, who’d later freely admit to their crime in a Look Magazine interview. Mamie accurately describes them as “monsters,” and they demonstrate no remorse, even in private moments. They never see Emmett as a child or a fellow human. Emmett Till wasn’t murdered in some distant past, even if the technological advances might make it seem that way. He could still be with us today, but instead, he’s come to personify lost Black youth.
Unfortunately, while the series is billed as Mamie’s story in its first season, the conventional narrative structure sidelines her for a good chunk of it. The series could’ve benefitted from starting with Mamie’s work as a civil rights activist and revisited Emmett’s murder and his killers’ sham trial in flashback. Those were, after all, events Mamie likely never forgot or moved past. They fueled her journey. As it stands, this core part of Mamie’s life, which inspired so many, feels like a rushed epilogue.
Women Of The Movement soberly reminds us that far too many Black mothers today, including Sybrina Fulton, Geneva Reed-Veal, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and Rep. Lucy McBath, must still follow Mamie’s path. Sometimes justice is achieved but often it’s still denied, and in every instance, a child is lost forever.