The first season of ABC’s new historical anthology series Women of the Movement, premiering on Jan. 6, sets out to tell the compelling story of educator and activist Mamie Till-Mobley, whose son Emmett Till was brutally murdered at the age of 14 by two white men after being accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. Folks already familiar with this political flashpoint know of her decision to have Till’s corpse shipped from Mississippi, where he was murdered, to her home in Chicago and hold an open-casket funeral so the world could see his mutilated body. After an all-white jury acquitted both of Till’s assailants in a trial in Mississippi, Till-Mobley embarked on a nationwide speaking tour with the NAACP, sharing her son’s story and advocating for civil rights and, later on, the abolishment of the death penalty, a mission she continued until she died in 2003.
With an elite ensemble of Black, female directors and “women” in its title, the limited series wants to correct male-dominated retellings of Black history and center women in the struggle for Black liberation. However, the series, based partially on her autobiography, doesn’t seem to know why it’s interested in Till-Mobley as a subject beyond the popular narratives, well-touted information about her activism, and for the sake of honoring her memory.
Beyond what her son’s tragedy would come to represent to the world, Till-Mobley’s story is one of deep personal reckoning—which she’s referred to as a “death of innocence”—about her community and her own existence as a Black person in the United States. It’s a violent and intense emotional trajectory to go from a place of relative comfort and indifference to staring white supremacists in the face. But the series often zooms out from her psyche, instead opting for the more network-television-friendly dramatics of Till’s death and subsequent trial. What would be more fascinating and revelatory as an intimate character study becomes a standard history lesson packaged in a run-of-the-mill crime procedural.
Maternity as an entry point for understanding the political location of Black women has proven to be problematic. In the age of Black Lives Matter, Black mothers have been unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight, symbolizing the pain, trauma and fear of their community due to state violence while being lionized for their resilience. As a result, Black women have been valued and acknowledged by politicians, community leaders and activists alike for their proximity to anti-Black violence via their sons and their ability to sustain the Black family. Meanwhile, Black women’s pleas to be met with the same urgency and commitment as their brothers for the direct violence they experience continue to go unheard.
Likewise, this political rendering of Black mothers made me hesitant of this particular project and others like it being helmed by men, considering the ways Till-Mobley’s life has been narrowly defined in relation to her son’s death. This isn’t to downplay or negate the centrality of Till’s murder to the later course of her life. Rather, I don’t trust men to capture the totality of her experience as a Black woman and a mother without promoting the false notion that Black women are secondary recipients of racist violence and that our contributions to the cause are primarily for the safety of Black men.
In that way, it was a relief to see the names of Gina Prince-Bythewood, Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons, all pioneers in telling Black women’s stories on-screen, appear in the opening credits, despite the series mainly being marketed as a joint production between Jay-Z and Will Smith. The series is also executive produced and written by Marissa Jo Cerar, whose writing credits include 13 Reasons Why and The Handmaid’s Tale. However, it becomes clear by the third episode that Women of the Movement, which was initially developed as a story about Emmett Till’s murder and trial for HBO and renewed with a female focus for ABC, is still primarily his story.
The series’ first two episodes—before it becomes consumed by the whirlwind of Till’s trial—are the most gripping. We get an equal feeling of warmth and queasiness watching the tender dynamics between mother and son and the rest of Till-Mobley’s close-knit family before the impending tragedy strikes. These moments when the 33-year-old (Adrienne Warren) is mothering Till (Cedric Joe), instructing him on how to behave in the South and helping him navigate his speech impediment, obviously demand the most intrigue, at least with those well-versed in this story. Hollywood favors seeing egregious acts of injustice play out in excruciating detail on-screen to guarantee a visceral response, but there tends to be more potency in depicting what is lost when these incidents occur. The narrative structure of films like 2012’s Fruitvale Station and 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk have proved as much.
“Hollywood favors seeing egregious acts of injustice play out in excruciating detail on-screen to guarantee a visceral response, but there tends to be more potency in depicting what is lost when these incidents occur.”
However, following the death of Till—which we’re spared visualizing with the exception of an ineffectively made-up corpse—the story pivots in the more obvious direction of capturing the mobilization of Black community leaders, organizations and activists around his lynching, and the staggering events of the trial. This isn’t to say that the diligent organizing on behalf of the NAACP, attorneys, journalists and witnesses isn’t compelling or significant to portray. But in the process of illustrating these collective efforts, the Southern judicial system and the corresponding media frenzy, Till-Mobley tends to get lost, mainly appearing on-screen to receive counsel from men, such as NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, NAACP state secretary of Mississippi Medgar Evers, journalist Simeon Booker and lead prosecutor Gerald Chatham, or having cliched outbursts of emotion to remind us that she’s the central character.
Despite Women of the Movement’s purported goal to bring visibility to women in the civil rights movement, the show doesn’t do much to remove Black women from the periphery. The only female organizer we meet is NAACP field worker Ruby Hurley, who helped gather Black witnesses for Till’s trial. Seasoned television actress Leslie Silva is extremely captivating as Hurley, which makes it all the more unfortunate that her presence is so limited. Despite how integral Hurley was to the growth of the NAACP in the South, this series reduces her to an obligatory shout-out.
Likewise, when Till-Mobley is introduced to Hurley in the courthouse, she’s pleasantly surprised to meet a woman working for the NAACP. Hurley responds that female activists like herself are “few but fierce.” “We’re not just part of it, we’re essential,” she says with a wink. This is the extent to which female organizers are acknowledged over six hours. Rosa Parks is shown on a television screen in the last episode to draw a correlation between Till’s trial and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Till’s lynching was certainly one of several catalysts for this demonstration, but Parks had already been heavily involved with the NAACP prior, fighting for female victims of white violence like Recy Taylor, Gertrude Perkins and Claudette Colvin. The manner in which she appears in the series endorses a reductive, commonly accepted narrative about her role in the civil rights movement.
It raises the question of why this series couldn’t have focused on one of the aforementioned women, if setting out to course-correct a male-dominated version of history. And maybe it will eventually. But this first installment seems generally disinterested in women. Till-Mobley’s life before and after her son’s death, including an abusive ex-husband, Louis Till, who was later lynched after being convicted of assaulting two white women while serving in the U.S. Army, begs for more exploration. Additionally, her rift with Roy Wilkins, after requesting pay and other accommodations from the NAACP that ended her speaking tour, is frustratingly modified as a voluntary decision to end the tour on her part.
Women of the Movement might satisfy those unfamiliar with this moment in history, but it fails to capture Till- Mobley beyond the well-established image of a grieving mother.