In August 1955, the body of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till was found in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. He had been accused of wolf whistling at a white woman. The county sheriff ordered the body’s immediate burial in Mississippi, without informing Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till. But she demanded that her child be returned home to Chicago — and held an open-casket funeral there “so that the world can see what they did to my son.”
“Her decision to open up that casket woke up the world,” declares Marissa Jo Cerar, creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer of “Women of the Movement,” a six-episode limited series that aired in three parts on ABC in January 2022.
What makes “Women of the Movement” unique among the many examinations of Emmett Till’s death is that it is told from the perspective of his mother.
Tens of thousands came to view Emmett’s body. For many, the photograph of his mutilated corpse lying in an open casket is their single defining memory of Emmett Till.
Now, with “Women of the Movement,” Cerar hopes to enhance his legacy by revealing the love and tension surrounding Emmett’s short life and death from the perspective of his devastated mother, played by Tony Award winner for best actress in a musical Adrienne Warren.
Cerar characterizes her approach to any project as “always super character-forward, female-forward and humanity-forward.” In “Women of the Movement,” she introduces Emmett as happy, loved and overprotected. He had been born a sickly child; his mother’s resolve and resilience were necessarily established early in his life.
Clearly, Cerar’s chosen collaborators had high standards to emulate and her team, predominantly female and of color, does not disappoint. To helm the six episodes, she lined up heavy-hitting Black feature film directors Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tina Mabry, Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons. She specifically hired Black feature filmmakers to help imbue the series with a movie’s look and feel.
The production designer, composer, editors and costume designer on the project were all women, making “Women of the Movement” one of the most diverse productions under consideration, both above and below the line.
Preparing for the role, Adrienne Warren relied on Mamie’s autobiography, in which so many unsparingly specific details are recounted. Warren also credits the research and historic detail provided by the hair, makeup and costume departments as essential to her performance.
An accurate silhouette was required too and the athletic Warren employed a nutritionist to temporarily add 30 pounds to her frame.
“I really think it made the clothes look amazing,” she raves. “I have never looked so feminine.”
That femininity would transform into a different, yet familiar shape soon after filming though, as she was called back to her physically demanding Tony-winning role as the lead in “Tina.”
But Mamie is hard to shake. Warren says that her part in shining a light on the Till family’s darkness was both “an unbelievable amount of pressure and an inspiration.”
During production, Warren chose not to stay in character when off camera. She did enlist a close friend to come down and stay with her during the shoot, to provide “a sense of family” at the end of each day. Having company enabled her to “leave that story at work. For me to be my best self for the camera, I needed to be OK.”
Filming took place “still very much in the cloud of the pandemic,” in March 2021, says Kasi Lemmons, who directed the final episode of the series (“The Last Word”). The “spooky and interesting” Mississippi Delta location added to the eeriness. “I felt very much there were ghosts speaking to me from that area of Mississippi. There’s a lot of emotion and there are people that are related to people [surrounding the events] that are still alive. On one level, we were welcomed with open arms, and yet there were places where it was made clear we were not welcome. There are people who do not want these stories dug up and taught,” Lemmons insists.
She had contemplated tackling the Till story for years but had felt emotionally unprepared to take on the subject matter. Now with two adult kids, and Cerar as showrunner, Lemmons made the leap.
“I thought it was an incredibly interesting perspective, to really look at Mamie as an activist and how she turned heroic from her pain and grief,” she says.
Cerar, meanwhile, never wavered from her own goal at the outset: “If I am going to tell the story, I want to tell it from the point of view of his mother and really show the world what it’s like to send your 14-year-old child on vacation and to have them come home in a box.”
When asked what she would describe as the highlight of the production, Cerar does not hesitate: It was when the surviving family members, including Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., who was with his cousin Emmett the night of the abduction, watched the series and gave it their blessing.
“I just started sobbing. They said we got it right and that’s what I’m going to hold on to.”
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