‘Women of the Movement’ Review: ABC’s Inspirational but Oddly Flat Story About Emmett Till’s Mother

·5-min read

This month, ABC is betting big that viewers will tune into its ambitious three-part, six-episode limited series “Women of the Movement,” centering on 14-year-old Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955 that served as an important catalyst for the civil rights movement. With the ongoing investigation into the Capitol riot and reignited Critical Race Theory debates in the wake of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” the nation’s “wokeness” meter has arguably never been higher. But the question is whether a traditional broadcast network can succeed on a project first developed at HBO.

Consciously focusing on the role Black women played in the civil rights struggle, “Women of the Movement” centers on Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her determination to bring her son’s mutilated body back to Chicago to “let the world see” (a phrase that inspires the title of ABC’s companion docuseries). We also follow the trial in which her son’s killers are acquitted as she evolves into an activist in her own right.

In keeping with the title, women’s lives are at the center of the narrative. The series kicks off with Till-Mobley (played by recent Tony winner Adrienne Warren) and her mom, Alma Carthan (Tonya Pinkins), dealing with Emmett’s difficult breach birth in a “White” hospital unresponsive to a pregnant Black woman’s urgent need. Till’s mere entry into the world was already challenged by multiple health issues. His mother’s refusal to institutionalize him establishes just how fiercely she is devoted to his happiness. Warren, Pinkins and Joe are incredibly believable as a tight-knit family unit — later joined by Gene Mobley (Ray Fisher, best known as Cyborg from DC’s “Justice League”) as Mamie’s third and final husband.

As young Emmett, Joe absolutely delivers, portraying him as a boy full of promise and blind to the hate that would claim his life in Mississippi. That becomes even more important with the consistent attacks that follow his death. As Till’s great uncle Mose Wright in Mississippi, Emmy winner Glynn Turman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) turns in another great performance. Timothy Hutton, as Jesse J. Breland, the lawyer for Till’s killers Roy Bryant (Carter Jenkins, “Famous in Love”) and J.W. Milam (Chris Coy, “The Deuce”), makes less of an impression.

Because “Women of the Movement” is based on two books — Till-Mobley’s “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America” (with Chris Benson) and Devery S. Anderson’s “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement” — it includes lots of underreported details about the case. That includes the huge role the NAACP, including that of their regional secretary Ruby Hurley (a dynamic Leslie Silva), who turned to the cotton fields for additional evidence and witnesses. It even broaches Till-Mobley’s later strained relationship with NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. The series also conveys the significant role played by Black news outlets like Jet magazine, which was the first national publication to run images of the disfigured Till.

Behind-the-scenes, Jay-Z and Will Smith serve as producers while every episode is directed by a Black woman — Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”), Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) and Mississippi native Tina Mabry (“Mississippi Damned). To lend extra authenticity, the filmmakers shot much of the series in the Mississippi Delta, including the very courthouse where Till’s killers were acquitted.

Despite such noble intentions and able talent, “Women of the Movement” doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch. Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s 2005 doc “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which resulted in the FBI reopening the case and helped introduce the Till tragedy to newer generations, demonstrated the power of a fact-based retelling of history. And two years ago, HBO’s fictional horror series “Lovecraft Country” tackled Till’s murder, even re-enacting the funeral. Instead of concentrating on the details of Till’s lynching, the show leaned into the emotional impact of his death on his friend Diana (played by Jada Harris) — the cousin of series lead Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors). Although “Women of the Movement” certainly conveys the social and political impact of Till’s lynching, the intimacy of just missing your friend, child, grandchild, nephew doesn’t register.

The weight of too much “telling” and not enough “showing” frequently sinks “Women of the Movement.” There are so many missed opportunities. Perhaps showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar, an alum of both “Handmaid’s Tale” and “13 Reasons Why,” revered the history too much to just let it live. As a result, episodes like the struggle to bring Till’s body back to Chicago underplay the real-life drama behind that defiant act. Plus, the series often lacks nuance in its depiction of the racial issues of the era: While Chicago was indeed far more welcoming to Black Americans fleeing the more oppressive Mississippi Delta, the city in its entirety was no racial oasis, especially in the 1950s.

Still, “Women of the Movement” is worth watching. In an age of constant debates over Critical Race Theory and claims by some that racism has not been pervasive in the U.S., this series’ by-the-books storytelling can offer a valuable corrective. For those accustomed to the dynamic narrative styles being employed even in documentaries like “Attica,” currently on Showtime, and “Blood Brothers” on Netflix, however, the important history of Mamie Till-Mobley and her son Emmett’s brutal murder, even in scripted form, will probably fall flat.  

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