That this six-part series — which uses the murder of Emmett Till to launch an anthology reconfiguring the narratives of the civil rights movement around its female participants — starts with tears isn’t surprising. But series creator Marissa Jo Cerar (The Handmaid’s Tale) doesn’t want to wallow in misery. Though there will be plenty of time over these six hours for viewers to be shocked and horrified, there are also moments of inspiration.
Cerar opens with Mamie Till (Adrienne Warren) experiencing the pain of childbirth, then being told that her baby may have impairments and need to be institutionalized because of the difficult delivery. Fourteen years later, Emmett is a clever, happy young man, a fact that both establishes Mamie’s maternal devotion and amplifies the tragedy to come.
It’s an immediate proof of concept that sets up the importance of Women of the Movement as a potential brand — and when these six episodes keep a clear eye on that concept, the result is a searing perspective on history most viewers will only know in part. When that focus wavers, Women of the Movement is a Wikipedia version of history — still potent, but generic.
The first episode, written by Cerar and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, leads with life instead of death. We see Emmett (Cedric Joe) as a young man, flirting with girls in front of his Chicago home, begging his mother to let him spend vacation with his great-uncle Mose (Glynn Turman) in rural Mississippi instead of tagging along with Mamie and her boyfriend Gene (Ray Fisher) on a less exciting trip to Nebraska. Before Emmett and his cousins and friends stop by Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for snacks — leading to an ill-fated interaction with the market’s 21-year-old white proprietress (Julia McDermott’s Carolyn) — the series treats Emmett not as a future victim, but as a son and generally optimistic dreamer. Prince-Bythewood finds time for widescreen evocations of Mississippi’s beauty, captured on location, as well as an almost nostalgic vision of childhood innocence, the wonder of a cross-country train journey and the freedom of an afternoon spent swimming in a river.
It’s not a spoiler — ABC has asked critics to be oddly cautious with what counts as “history” — to say that the market run-in, which Prince-Bythewood avoids depicting in its totality, sparks local rumors and prompts Carolyn’s husband, Roy (Carter Jenkins), and Roy’s half-brother J.W. (Chris Coy) to abduct and kill Emmett, an event that sparked outrage in much of the country. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” Mamie famously declared, insisting on an open casket viewing for her unrecognizable child.
Women of the Movement treats even familiar details with care. Prince-Bythewood and subsequent directors including Tina Mabry and Julie Dash are cautious not to exploit the trauma. They want audiences to see Emmett’s mutilated body, without lingering on or fetishizing it. Instead, the directors prefer to let us experience the pain through the expressive visage of Warren, a Tony winner for her lead performance in the musical Tina and an electric revelation for anybody who hasn’t seen her on Broadway. Warren is equally vivid in her joy and her sorrow, and you never doubt for a second how this woman could have been such a galvanic force and how she parlayed a broken heart into advocacy.
More than anything, by positioning the story around Mamie, Women of the Movement treats her as more than an accidental activist. Mamie makes choices, even knowing they could put her life in danger. The series acknowledges the many shadings of heroism, whether it’s Mamie’s mother Alma’s (Tonya Pinkins) determination to protect her family perhaps at the expense of leading the movement or Mose learning that keeping his head down is no longer an option. Pinkins and especially Turman are powerhouses capable of standing out even if their characters are left a little thin. It’s hard not to feel like a series truly embodying the title Women of the Movement would have boosted Alma’s profile and given Leslie Silva something more substantive to play as NAACP legend Ruby Hurley.
The peak version of this story indeed might have been built entirely around Mamie and Ruby, two women pushing the movement forward from very different backgrounds. But Women of the Movement spends later episodes depicting the murder trial and several bordering-on-anonymous reporters doing investigative work at the same time. This is where, despite multiple books credited as source material, Women of the Movement loses a lot of its authenticity, instead channeling a mixture of To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood by showcasing white characters — played by actors like Gil Bellows, Timothy Hutton and Dan Byrd — who grandstand and complain about the heat in high-school theatrical Southern accents.
Mind you, those are entertaining inspirations (and To Kill a Mockingbird was likely inspired by the Till case), and I’m sure it adds to accessibility to let audiences experience the comfortable discomfort of burning crosses and sneering Mississippi legal bigotry. But every time we linger on events Mamie couldn’t have known about and conversations she couldn’t have been privy to, what’s distinctive here dissipates a little.
And it isn’t necessarily that I wish Women of the Movement kept its eye exclusively on the eponymous women. Any time the scripts put a spotlight on the Bryants or engage in superficial speculation about behind-closed-doors jury deliberation, that’s time I would have preferred to spend with Ruby or other real-life figures like Medgar Evers (Tongayi Chirisa), T.R.M. Howard (Alex Désert) or Rayfield Mooty (Chris Butler). This case was a magnet and breeding ground for iconic leaders, each with their own motivations and strategies; those are the people I wanted to see more of rather than various racist Southern sheriffs and the occasional well-meaning white knight.
The Women of the Movement formula is a good one, and this first season packs a punch while still suggesting ways future seasons could be refined and improved.