Emmett Till's mother had a 'prophecy' after his death. A new TV show aims to fulfill it
Before Trayvon Martin, before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery and before George Floyd, there was Emmett Till.
In recent years, the killings of these Black Americans and numerous others have been fiery sparks propelling the Black Lives Matter movement, culminating in the racial reckonings of 2020. But such incidents were preceded decades earlier by another galvanizing crime: the 1955 kidnapping and killing of the 14-year-old Till in the Jim Crow South after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store.
That horrific act, and the determined battle by Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to punish those responsible, was a catalyst for the formation of the civil rights movement that gained national momentum in the 1960s. But while many key events in the history of the movement have been examined in documentaries and dramatized by film and TV, Till's slaying has not been a major focal point in these efforts. The brutality of his death — he was tortured and lynched — and lingering questions that hampered the quest for justice for years placed the killing beyond Hollywood's reach.
ABC steps into that void this week with its limited series "Women of the Movement," which shines a new light on Till and his mother. Premiering Thursday and airing over three consecutive weeks, the six-episode series is one of the most powerful — and potentially risky — projects revolving around race ever developed by a broadcast network. It also comes at a time when racial tensions are especially volatile, fueled by the rise of white nationalism and an ongoing debate between those who wish to confront America's racist past and those who want to downplay it.
That context has made "Women of the Movement" even more personal and heartfelt for creator and executive producer Marissa Jo Cerar. In a recent Zoom interview, Cerar, whose writing credits include "The Handmaid's Tale," became emotional when asked about the relevance of the project in connection with current headlines about racism and the tragic deaths of Black people at the hands of others.
"These stories keep happening," she said, wiping away tears. "Our people keep getting murdered. It's so horrifying to look at social media and to see a certain group of people immediately criminalizing victims. It's devastating. They just see a dead body. They don't see the light that was extinguished. I want people to see Emmett before he was a victim or martyr, just as I hope they could see Trayvon or George Floyd or — there's too many names to list."
Cerar became more composed as she added, "They were babies, they were people, they were members of their communities. I just want people to see their humanity."
Adrienne Warren, who plays Till-Mobley, said the time is right for "Women of the Movement," which reflects Hollywood's growing awareness of, and support for, the Black Lives Matter movement.
"This shows that our industry is making a shift," said Warren, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of rock icon Tina Turner in "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical." "When has something like this ever been on network TV? Our industry was not ready for this before. We were not allowed to tell these stories in a nuanced way until very recently. The gatekeepers are opening doors to allow our stories to be told in a way where we are shown as human beings. "
Coincidentally, "Women of the Movement" also arrives as the Till case is back in the news. The U.S. Justice Department announced last month that it was closing its investigation into Till's case, with no charges filed against Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose alleged encounter with Till led to his slaying. The department had reopened the investigation after a 2017 book quoted Donham as saying she had lied about the incident.
The announcement hit Cerar hard: "It was kind of devastating, coming so close to the premiere. It makes you wonder — what if we had waited another month? Could the show have made a difference or created a different result? I try to block it out. The more people who learn about Emmett, Mamie and all the other heroes we showcase, the better. I hope this opens hearts and minds despite all of this."
Till's cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, told the Los Angeles Times: "I'm not surprised the way it came out, but we've been doing what we're supposed to do, going forward with our purpose and goal in life. There is nothing to stop us from doing that."
Added Warren: "I believe in divine timing. If justice was not served in this way, this now gives us even more of a platform to make sure this story is told right and that people know about it."
After Till was killed, his mother ordered that his casket remain open during the funeral. Jet magazine published photos of the teen's brutalized body. The reaction to the shocking pictures proved to be a turning point for the civil rights movement.
In line with the weight of its subject matter, ABC is putting heavy muscle behind the project. The premiere will air with limited commercial interruptions, and each week's installment will be followed by an hourlong episode of the ABC News docuseries "Let the World See," examining Till-Mobley's life and activism.
Among those appearing in the docuseries are former first lady Michelle Obama, rapper Common, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and author-scholar Michael Eric Dyson. Actress Nia Long ("Love Jones") will read excerpts from Till-Mobley's memoir, "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America."
The executive producers of "Women of the Movement" include Will Smith, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the first hour.
Still, Cerar acknowledged that audiences may be hesitant, at least at first, to watch a historical drama about the vicious slaying of an innocent Black youth. As the deaths of Floyd and others have made headlines and sparked worldwide protests, a number of scripted projects, including HBO's "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft Country," Amazon's "Them: Covenant" and the Oscar-winning short film "Two Distant Strangers," about a young Black man caught in a deadly time warp with a racist cop, have raised questions about when and how the depiction of racist violence crosses into the realm of "trauma porn."
"There might be people who say, 'Do we need to hear about another racially motivated murder?'" Cerar said. "What I will ask is that they keep watching."
She stressed that "Women of the Movement" would highlight the emotional and inspirational elements of Till-Mobley's journey: "This is not just a murder story or a civil rights story. The only way I would consider it was coming at it from the mother's point of view, and approaching it as a family drama based on a true crime. We get to know the people before the tragedy so we can relate to them more. It's a boy's coming of age. It's a woman's coming of age."
Cerar's knowledge about Till and his story was spotty until she started working as a writer on the Fox drama "Shots Fired" in 2016. Created by Prince-Bythewood and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, the series concerned the investigation into a pair of racially charged shootings of North Carolina teenagers.
Said Cerar: "There was a photo of Emmett Till outside the writers room, and we had to pass by it every day. Working on the series, I did research into the story. One day, Reggie and Gina's young son Cassius read us his poem about Emmett and Trayvon Martin meeting in heaven. It was a real turning point for us."
Watkins said "Women of the Movement" should be seen as a project that will help bridge racial divides: "Mamie's prophecy was that Emmett didn't die in vain. This show is a step in that direction. He is still speaking to us from the grave."
'Women of the Movement'
premieres 8 p.m. Thursday