The further history gets from us, the easier it becomes to dismiss it as some far-flung past when, in fact, it remains all too relevant to our present. “Women of the Movement,” premiering Jan. 6 on ABC, directly aims to rectify that, putting a sharp focus on a story that, for too many, keeps fading into distant memory. Developed as an anthology series to highlight a different piece of American history every season, “Women of the Movement” first follows Mamie Till-Mobley, whose 14 year-old son Emmett became a national flashpoint upon his brutal murder in 1955. After his death, Till-Mobley became a prominent civil rights figure in her own right both by terrible accident and grim design. The image of a grieving Black mother put a powerful face to a type of crime that had gone unremarked upon for decades — and yet, it’s impossible to watch “Women of the Movement” and not think of the Black mothers who continue to be in this position, over and over again to no avail, to this day and inevitably beyond.
Written by Marissa Jo Cerar, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tina Mabry, Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons, this first season of “Women of the Movement” does all it can to imbue Emmett Till and his mother with the kind of humanity they have long been denied. Emmett, played with a heartbreaking openness by Cedric Joe, is an eager kid whose curiosity can get the better of him, as is typical of just about any kid. Mamie, powerfully played by recent Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren, is a mother so devoted to her child that when the white doctor who delivered him suggested she needed to give him up lest his developmental challenges overwhelm her, she didn’t hesitate a second before refusing. Though ABC’s (terrible) tagline for her season of “Women of the Movement” is “his life made her a mother; his death made her a fighter,” the show itself demonstrates how Mamie was always both.
Over the course of six episodes (airing two at a time alongside companion ABC news specials on Till), “Women of the Movement” portrays the birth, death, and afterlife of Emmett Till through the eyes of Mamie, the wider Black community mourning him, and the white Mississippians who couldn’t see him as anything other than a threat. There’s only so many subtleties the show can afford given such limited time, and so it often defaults to making each scene the most blunt version of itself in order to make maximum impact. But as the series also emphasizes, “the most blunt version of itself” is all too true to the reality of the racism it’s highlighting. Still, there is a version of this story that would indulge its physical brutality in place of its emotional counterpart, and this one largely avoids that imbalance thanks to the able and often moving direction from Prince-Bythewood, Mabry, Dash, and Lemmons. (Viewers should be warned, though, that while early episodes avoid showing graphic details of the murder, a later episode does not.)
What generally saves “Women of the Movement” from becoming a rote piece of didactic storytelling is both the empathy of the direction and vulnerability of its main actors. In his brief screen time, Joe fully embodies a child who has too often been relegated to a symbol status that strips him of his humanity. As his uncle Mose, who releases Emmett to his eventual murderers under threat of death, Glynn Turman is quietly devastating in every scene he gets. In the rare quiet moments when Mamie gets to take a breath at home, Ray Fisher and Tonya Pinkins turn in memorable performances as her concerned partner and mother, respectively. And of course there’s Warren, tasked with anchoring the series, who brings Mamie to visceral life even when the script gets necessarily clunky in its attempts to have her tie everything together. As Warren plays it with aching vulnerability, and as history has borne out too many times, Mamie’s victories as a civil rights activist nonetheless drain her, and so many other grieving Black mothers, of their time, energy, and capacity for hope.
Warren and “Women of the Movement” alike are clear-eyed in their portrayals of how a past atrocity unfolded on the most personal levels, and how it continues to echo today. Even when the series hammers the morals of its story home, its refusal to pretend like this country’s made big enough strides since Till’s murder is a credit to its determination to tell the whole truth.
“Women of the Movement” premieres Thursday, Jan. 6, at 8 p.m. on ABC.