The tragic story of the abbreviated life of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy brutally murdered in a racially motivated crime in Jim Crow era U.S.A, is hardly obscure. The abject cruelty of his death, and the judicial travesty that followed, remains irresistible to storytellers of all stripes. ABC’s new anthology series “Women of the Movement” is a recent addition. It’s a fact-based drama that ostensibly aims to center Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Adrienne Warren), who devoted her life to seeking justice for her son, and it’s a worthwhile challenge. Despite how well-chronicled Till’s death has been, his mother’s story isn’t as established in mainstream consciousness. But while “Women of the Movement” ambition is palpable, it’s a missed opportunity as a story told with broad strokes, stifled by lack of a singular, authoritative voice.
Emmett Till was murdered just days after he left Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi during the summer of 1955. His “crime”: allegedly flirting with a white woman. Tortured and killed in the dead of the night, his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The murder was a case that drew international interest, sparking what became the Civil Rights movement.
As the title suggests, “Women of the Movement” is not about humanizing Emmett Till — but nor is it quite the requiem for Mamie Till-Mobley that’s its commission. Whereas Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” strove to engender empathy for Oscar Grant, before an encounter with police led to his death, which was saved for the very end, “Women of the Movement” unfolds primarily after Till was murdered. It may be marketed as a story told from the perspective of Till’s mother, but she’s ultimately part of an ensemble cast of familiar names and faces, and, at worst, she takes a back seat to the points of view of its male characters, including the reporters and civil rights activists from across the country who descended on the tiny Mississippi town, as well as attorneys on both sides, and the police departments battling over jurisdiction.
In the few moments spent with Emmett, he’s portrayed as a bright-eyed “talker” with an infectious smile, and an incessantly curious mind; a fearless kid ready to take on the world, even if naively so. The knowledge of what tragic fate lies ahead for him, cutting a life of potentially great promise criminally short, makes his expressive joy sadder to watch. And in the decades following his murder, until her death in 2003, Mamie continued to tell her son’s story, which still haunts the American South.
Even if the statement “Women of the Movement” wants to underline is the critical role Black women played in the African American struggle for civil rights, it doesn’t insert the viewer deep into their lives to know exactly what to feel about the complications of each, beyond exposition. And as an unsparing rebuke to the judicial system’s long history of institutionalized racism, it simply isn’t conspicuous enough.
For the series to stand out and live up to its name, it would require a tougher, unrelenting examination of Mamie’s interior life, and/or the lives of the women inspired by her action, against a rigorously-dissected backdrop of a country that’s consistently detrimental to the Black experience.
For much of “Women of the Movement,” the portrait of Mamie is more like one of a psychically imprisoned human being. She’s alone, but with very few moments of actual privacy, solitude, and self-reflection. Her life revolves around her son, and she’s at the mercy of the kindness of strangers, though where their allegiances lie vary. And yet it’s not the study of the psychological effects of the kind of anguish that a story with these accoutrements begs for. It’s not an examination of the isolation and frustrations of a woman prey to political forces beyond her control, and family interests, as well as her attempts at pushing back against the moral inanity that surrounds her. As a result, even though Cerar is credited as creator and showrunner, and Gina Prince-Bythewood as director, the series advances as if it were the product of an assembly line.
It’s a wonder why the series is not based on Till-Mobley’s actual memoir, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” which she co-authored with Christopher Benson. Perhaps “Women of the Movement” would’ve been better served if it relied on her first-person account. None can truly understand her struggle, but, in her candid recollections, she is an extraordinarily gripping figure, fearless in sharing her life story, including the murder of her son and subsequent trial, and her attempts in trying to make sense of it all.
The tragedy is at once a horrifying tale about a vulnerable, yet courageous woman’s torment, a psychological drama about how one’s spirit can be so crushed only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and a love story between a mother and the son ripped away from her. Perhaps realizing its faux pas, in December ABC also announced a limited docuseries chronicling Mamie Till-Mobley’s quest for justice. Titled “Let the World See,” and featuring Nia Long, excerpts from Till-Mobley’s memoir will be incorporated.
“Women of the Movement” is led by a decorated cast, including Tony winners Warren and Tonya Pinkins, and Emmy winner Glynn Turman among others, whose talents just aren’t appropriately utilized. It’s rudimentary filmmaking, which is sufficient. But “Women of the Movement” just isn’t as distinctive nor incisive as it needs to be in 2022. In a bid to be inclusive, it tries to do too much and isn’t navigated by a clear narrative voice. It’s not the first, and likely won’t be the last account of Emmett Till’s murder and aftermath. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the deluge.
The six-episode “Women of the Movement” will air in three parts beginning Thursday, January 6 (8-10 pm ET), for three consecutive weeks.