The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story of Emmett Till has been told before. ‘Women of the Movement’ reveals new layers of depth and tragedy.

Adrienne Warren as Mamie Till-Mobley in “Women of the Movement.” (James Van Evers/ABC)

In popular remembrance, Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy brutalized to death in 1950s Mississippi for allegedly being overly familiar with a White woman in a grocery store, will forever be linked with his White accuser and his White murderers.

But Till’s case is remembered at all because of the continuous efforts of his grieving mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (then Mamie Till-Bradley), to shake awake the nation’s conscience after the barbaric killing of her only child.

Before being tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound fan tied to his neck with barbed wire, the teenager had been shot and beaten so badly that his corpse was found with a dislodged eye, a severed ear and missing nearly all his teeth. Till-Mobley held open Emmett’s casket for photographers, asking America to look at what its racist power structures and their savage enforcement had done to her son. It wasn’t difficult to believe that Emmett had been hated for the most tenuous of reasons. But his mother wanted people to know that Emmett had also been loved.

Till-Mobley’s motherly activism — and the all-too-recognizable obstacles in its way — is the subject of the new ABC miniseries “Women of the Movement.” Starring Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren (“Tina”) as Mamie Till-Mobley, the six-part drama complicates a story many of us think we know, adding new layers not only to the Till family, but to the civil rights movement and our ideas of social progress as a whole.

“Women of the Movement” opens in the hospital room where Mamie will give birth to Emmett — an introduction that initially feels unimaginative in its foundation-laying of maternal attachment, then pays emotional dividends later in the series. Rushing to Mamie’s bedside is her own mother, Alma (Tonya Pinkins), a source of unrelenting support and, when her daughter can bear it, bitter wisdom. Emmett arrives after a difficult birth with bruises on his face, speculation that he’ll never walk and a recommendation from the obstetrician that the infant be institutionalized as soon as possible. New mom Mamie can’t abide the notion: “I want him to be free.”

Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement

Acclaimed filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Old Guard”) helms the pilot, in which the tight bond between Mamie and Emmett is conveyed through effective shorthand. (Part of an all-Black female directing slate, Prince-Bythewood is an executive producer on the series, as are Will Smith and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.) Played as a teen by Cedric Joe, Emmett is at the age where Mamie has to start letting go, which is why she reluctantly relents in letting him travel south from their middle-class, matriarchal Chicago home to go fishing with his Uncle Mose (Glynn Turman) and the other boys and men in the family. Emmett might be more awkward than even the average 14-year-old: He stutters, wilts in heat and spends his summer vacation reading comic books. Even his mom observes with a chuckle that he’s got no rhythm.

These humanizing beats are crucial for a series that quickly zooms out in scope and balloons its cast after Emmett’s execution. Mamie’s conversion — from the reserved but fashionable “good girl” of an apolitical family to a public speaker strategizing for news coverage and risking her life to demand justice — is somewhat shortchanged, and Warren’s performance is at times too understated.

But “Women of the Movement” becomes only more compelling — and evinces its enormous ambitions — when it reminds us that the case was far more complicated than the thumbnail version most of us know today, and that there are a disturbing number of similarities to today’s struggles for racial equity. The circumstances of Till’s killing, still not entirely known to this day, are almost immediately embroiled in conspiracy theories that seek to exonerate the White suspects, while Mamie’s anti-racism speeches are smeared as “hate propaganda.” Each side strives to use journalistic apparatuses to their own advantage, which means that the fight for justice become as much about control of the narrative as a righteous verdict.

Occasionally, the dialogue is ungraceful in connecting the lines between past and present. (“We need more than thoughts and prayers,” says one character when Emmett’s disappearance has been reported to his family — a sentiment that sticks out all the more given how large a role the church seems to have played in the real-life Till-Mobley’s life and activism.) Creator Marissa Jo Cerar fares better with the period details: the trained bowed heads and avoidance of eye contact by Black Southerners in the presence of White counterparts; the segregated bathrooms in the courthouse and the lack of accommodations for Black journalists; prosecutor Gerald Chatham’s (Gil Bellows) well-intentioned suggestion to Mamie that she appeal to the jury by adding a “sir” when answering his questions.

The latter half of “Women of the Movement” becomes a procedural and a courtroom drama, with Black journalists and NAACP activists doing the investigative work that local law enforcement is loath to, even after the trial for Emmett’s killers (played by Carter Jenkins and Chris Coy) begins. The miniseries is sensitive to the class differences between the Black professionals and the Black farmworkers they rely on for information, especially the outsize risk that the latter put themselves in by talking to outsiders.

Cerar and her writers are also perceptive about how White rural Mississippians probably varied in their reaction to the Till case, even if they’re in general agreement about the need to preserve “our way of life.” Chatham’s best argument for locking up Emmett’s killers to an all-White jury is that the boy deserved a “whupping” for allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott). “A true Southerner would never kill a child,” he asserts, trying to believe the statement himself.

Justice Department closes Emmett Till investigation without filing charges

The twists and turns in the Till case — along with the many obstructions that the local police, led by Sheriff Clarence Strider (Gary Basaraba), put forth to stymie the truth’s emergence in court — give the miniseries an unexpected narrative propulsion. There’s a deep intelligence and care in the choices of which characters and settings to showcase, which may sideline Mamie but offer a panoramic view of the many competing groups and individuals who wanted to spotlight, or bury, Emmett’s story. (Also judicious: Cerar’s decisions about how much of the violence and its aftermath to show on camera.) And when the series finally returns to Mamie, it’s sensitive to how her campaign to keep her son’s murder in the headlines renders her a target of accusations of bad parenting, as if any amount of mothering could protect a Black teen from racism’s brutalities.

In a 2017 book, historian Timothy Tyson alleged that the actual Bryant had recanted parts of her testimony in an interview, saying that Till had never grabbed her by the waist as she had sworn in court. After the FBI reopened the case, Bryant denied Tyson’s claim, and the Bureau closed the investigation last month. “Women of the Movement” proposes a wholly plausible version of what happened between Emmett and Carolyn, while convincingly contesting the probable lies that the White stakeholders in the case — including the sheriff — spun to perpetuate their “way of life.” But one detail can’t be in dispute: the maternal love that fueled Mamie Till-Mobley during and after her son’s life, and the transformative movement it inspired.

Women of the Movement (one hour) premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC.