Women of the Movement, an ABC anthology series on the often overlooked or under-appreciated women of the American civil rights movement, opens with tears of agony – that of a young Mamie Till (Broadway star Adrienne Warren), a black woman whose labor pains are dismissed by a white nurse in a sterile 1941 hospital. It’s indicative of the road ahead, for a series following the brutal, racist murder of Mamie’s son, Emmett, by two white men in Mississippi, 1955, through Mamie’s grief-fueled activism and the eventual acquittal of his killers. But Women of the Movement, crucially, begins with the joy of life: first infant Emmett, cherished by his mother, then the young man whose killing inflamed the country.
This first of a six-part installment, created by Marissa Jo Cerar (The Handmaid’s Tale) and executive produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, jumps from 1941 to the summer of 1955 in Chicago, where Mamie lives with Emmett (Cedric Joe), a charming, soft-hearted boy believably on the cusp of childhood and adolescence, in relative comfort. The series proceeds with the strict chronology and sign-posting of a network procedural. Emmett, hungry for adventure, wants to visit his great-uncle Mose (Glynn Turman) in the Mississippi Delta rather than hang with his mom and her doting boyfriend Gene (Ray Fisher); Mamie is hesitant, fearful of Emmett’s naïveté regarding the customs of the deep Jim Crow south, but she relents. They poignantly hug goodbye at the train station.
Pilot director Gina Prince-Bythewood plays the fateful encounter between Emmett and grocery cashier Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott), a white woman, ambiguously enough to reflect existing question marks – we don’t see what Emmett says to her, there is a wolf-whistle but it’s unclear who it’s from or to – while remaining crystal clear on the dynamics: Emmett, playful and kind, acting innocently; Carolyn, bound by a code of hatred and fear, reacting ominously in anger. By the end of the first episode, Emmett has been snatched from his bed by Carolyn’s husband Roy (Carter Jenkins) and his half-brother, JW Milam (Chris Coy) and taken away in a truck, never to be seen alive again.
The remaining five episodes play as a combination of network procedural and educational biopic (with attendant on-the-nose dialogue and production values), focusing on Mamie’s frantic search for her son, defiance that his mutilated body be hidden from the public, and refusal to let the presumed injustice of the south carry the day without a fight. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously said upon viewing his unrecognizably beaten face, a line Warren, who at times plays Mamie with a theater actor’s overemphasis, cast with a deep reserve of resilience.
At its best, Women of the Movement provocatively explores a chapter of American history most don’t know enough about with sensitivity, faithfulness, and care not to exploit trauma. Directors Julie Dash, Tina Mabry and Kasi Lemmons emphasize the constant presence of the clicking camera flash and throng of reporters surrounding Mamie, a hounding familiar to modern viewers but perhaps not to this story. The series is strongest when embedded in the daunting, thorny work of activism with such real-life figures as Medgar Evers (Tongayi Chirisa), TRM Howard (Alex Désert), Simeon Booker (Miles Fowler), and Ruby Hurley (Leslie Silva), the NAACP’s south-east chapter head whose nascent friendship with Mamie, as one of the few female leaders, would’ve made a fascinating dual pole to the series.
Instead, its perspective unsuccessfully veers into the white southerners who conduct the trial in Mississippi, with a particularly unsure handling of the killers (who confessed to the murder in a 1956 interview, a year after their acquittal). At times, we’re privy to the Bryants’ private lives – when Roy confronts Carolyn about the store encounter, when JW suggests to Roy they go after the n-word who did “all that talk at the store”, when Carolyn frets about what to wear and say the day of her testimony – moments which barely (and comfortably) humanize them and which Mamie couldn’t possibly know. There’s a version of this story which digs into the Bryants’ hatred and draws deep enough characterizations to prevent viewers from dismissing them as simply bigoted villains from a different era. But that feels beyond the scope and interest of this show, which is supposed to center Mamie and I wish it had kept the murderers to within her perspective – contemptuous, hateful figures she sees in the press and in the courtroom, devoid of empathy or regret.
Cutting down on the mechanics of a trial with a foregone conclusion, the bulk of the series’ middle, could’ve opened space for some of the show’s more intriguing elements: the generational divide between Mamie and her mother Alma (Tonya Pinkins); the pressure the NAACP puts on Mamie, a private citizen reeling from unimaginable tragedy, to speak publicly; tensions between the witnesses of the Till kidnapping and murder, poor Mississippi sharecroppers with every reason to fear any attention, and the activists and lawyers seeking justice. These are reasons to trust the creators’ vision, even if it frustratingly strays from the woman at the center in its first outing.