Women of the Movement Tells a Heartbreaking True Story

Cast and creators discuss the human story behind one of the most infamous hate crimes in U.S. history

An ABC event series concludes with a two-and-a-half-hour instalment, as cast and creators discuss one of the most infamous hate crimes in U.S. history

Although the story of Emmett Till is not a pleasant one, it’s a story that bears repeating. In 1955, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago travelled down to Mississippi to spend a summer visiting relatives, when an interaction at a local grocery store with a white shopkeeper resulted in his brutal lynching.

Instead of allowing him to become one of many faceless victims of the Jim Crow South, Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on a public funeral with an open casket, and allowed for pictures of his grotesquely beaten and waterlogged body to be published in Black-oriented newspapers and magazines, drawing attention to racism in the United States and the barbaric behaviour taking place across the country. In the process, Mamie became a key figure in the civil rights movement.

To depict the short life and tragic fate of Emmett, but above all the strength of his mother, series creator Marissa Jo Cerar dug into every last bit of material available. “I wanted to tell the story, because of [people’s] limited knowledge [of the event]. We just had a picture of a smiling boy and then a brutalized boy, and we had stories, rumours and myths. I wanted to know, who was he?” says Cerar. “I wanted to do as much research as I possibly could, watch every interview, read every transcript, do everything I could to learn about who Emmett Till was and do my best in bringing it to life.”

The six-episode limited series introduces us to Mamie, played by Tony-winner Adrienne Warren, as she gives birth to a son and raises the kind and social boy, played by Cedric Joe, on the South Side of Chicago. “It was really important to me that we did not begin the series with a dead body. I wanted the audience to see their brother, their cousin, their neighbour, their child’s friend at school, their student, the little boy who walks into the corner store,” Cerar explains. “I wanted this to be a family drama that happens to be about a true crime. I’m so grateful that I was able to tell the family story, the love story, and that I didn’t lose any of that to service more of the crime and the trial.”

Alas, Cerar didn’t have to look for ways to make this period piece relatable to a contemporary audience. As she was in the process of writing the show in May 2020, George Floyd’s murder, at the hands of a police officer, took place in Minneapolis. “What happened is still happening,” she says. “The portrayal of young, Black boys and men is still the same: criminalizing victims. So, we just told [this] story, and the audience will come to their own conclusions.”

Warren, best known for portraying Tina Turner on Broadway and in London’s West End, felt an enormous weight taking on a role of this nature. “There’s so much responsibility in telling stories of people that were here, especially our ancestors, those that have passed on,” she says. “This history is my history. It is an honour to have the opportunity to tell their stories in the best way that I possibly can, and for me, that is erasing myself from this narrative and putting them forward.”

The project came to Ray Fisher, who portrays Mamie’s husband Gene Mobley, at a time when the Justice League actor was in the throes of his own experience with racism in Hollywood, having alleged abusive behaviour on the set of the superhero movie. “When I sat down with Marissa, I told her, ‘This means a lot to me right now in this moment,’ ” he says. “This project is bigger than any issue that I’ve ever had, bigger than any sort of issue that anybody I’ve known personally has ever had. And to actually be able to put action behind the words, not just hashtag ‘support’ but to be able to tell this story that is going to affect the minds of hopefully generations to come, that is where the real work is… I think we all knew we were working on something extremely powerful.”

And the fact that the show was filmed on location in Mississippi only served to make the story feel more vital for its cast. “There’s something to be said for feeling the dirt that they felt under our feet, seeing and being in some of the buildings that they were in, feeling the ancestors with you, feeling the tension in the air that is still there,” Warren reflects. “Not much has changed since 1955, which just elevates what we’re doing in a way that makes this piece so unbelievably important. This is about informing those who may not have known before, so that we don’t continue to perpetuate these cycles.”

Women of the Movement airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on Global and ABC