“When you’re down there and a white person approaches you, what do you do? You keep your whole head down if you have to …” – Mamie Till giving instructions to her 14-year-old son, Emmett, before he departs their home in Chicago for a summer trip to visit family in Mississippi, in “Women of the Movement.”
We know the story of the horrific 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
We know it in Chicago, and in Mississippi, across the United States and in many parts of the globe, a story that has been told via myriad platforms through the decades – but the story didn’t begin and end in 1955. It has continued to resonate through the years, in large part due to the awe-inspiring bravery and heart of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who refused to let the system cover up the obscene circumstances of her son’s murder, who would not be silenced during the investigation and subsequent sham of a trial, who became a vital and lasting voice in the civil rights movement until her death at age 81 in 2003, when she was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, with her monument reading, “Her Pain United a Nation.”
Actress Adrienne Warren won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Tina Turner in “Tina,” and she solidifies her standing as a genuine star with her performance as Mamie Till in “Women of the Movement,” a six-part limited series airing on ABC in two-episode arcs over three consecutive weeks, that started Jan. 6. Created by Marissa Jo Cerar, with an A-list roster of executive producers including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Gina Prince-Bythewood, this is a riveting, sobering and at times deeply inspirational historical drama that engages in old-fashioned storytelling techniques with simple and powerful effectiveness. A straightforward, at times melodramatic but always involving procedural, “Women of the Movement” details the events leading up to Emmett’s murder, the polluted swamp of corruption and institutional racism threatening to derail any legitimate efforts for truth and justice during the investigation, the trial itself and its immediate aftermath.
After a prologue about Emmett’s difficult birth in 1941, a title card tells us we’re in “Chicago, Illinois, Aug. 14th, 1955.” (We’ll see Chicago-centric signage representing Halsted and 63rd streets and A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home from time to time in the series, but “Women of the Movement” was filmed in Memphis, Tennessee, and in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, near where the murder took place.) Warren’s Mamie is a single and fiercely protective mother raising her son Emmett (Cedric Joe) in a loving home. When Mamie’s Uncle Mose (the great Glynn Turman) invites Emmett down to Mississippi to spend a week fishing and soaking up the sun and hanging with his cousins, Mamie reluctantly agrees – but only after repeated warnings to her son that Tallahatchie County isn’t Cook County, and Emmett must mind his P’s and Q’s at all times when around white folks.
“Women of the Movement” quickly plunges us into the harrowing sequence (because we know what’s coming) in which Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott) is working the register at her husband’s convenience store when Emmett enters, smiles at her, buys some candy, waves to her, says “Goodbye” and whistles at Carolyn after she has gone to her truck and retrieved a gun.
End of incident, but only the beginning of a brutal tragedy. A pickup truck pulls up to Mose’s place in the dead of night, and Carolyn’s husband, Roy (Carter Jenkins), and Roy’s half-brother, J.W. Milam (Chris Coy), pull Emmett from his bed and speed off into the darkness.
“Women of the Movement” toggles back and forth between Mississippi and Chicago, with law enforcement searching for Emmett while Mamie is surrounded by supportive friends and family back home as the local Black press covers the story. When Emmett’s horribly mutilated body is pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the sheriff wants his body buried in Mississippi, but Mamie insists Emmett be returned home to Chicago – and when she sees her son, she invites the local press to take photos and declares, “I want a public wake tonight, open casket.” Thanks to Warren’s magnificently calibrated performance, these scenes make for some of the most moving moments in the entire series.
In subsequent episodes, “Women of the Movement” becomes a solid but standard courtroom procedural, with Timothy Hutton’s oily and disingenuous defense attorney planting poisonous seeds of doubt about whether the body was really Emmett and encouraging Carolyn to tell a wildly exaggerated version of events. We’re introduced to a gallery of historical figures, including pioneering activist Ruby Hurley (Leslie Silva) and Medgar Evers (Tongayi Chirisa), and at times Mamie’s story takes a back seat to the trial, with the jury reaching a not guilty verdict after just 67 minutes of deliberations, and the aftermath, when the defendants sold their story to Look magazine and admitted to the killings, knowing they couldn’t be retried.
Ultimately, though, this is Emmett’s story, and it’s Mamie’s story, as we see her resolving to join the cause and make sure Emmett’s name is never forgotten. “Women of the Movement” does justice to Emmett and to his mother.