The harrowing story of the 1955 torture and murder of 14-year old Emmett Till has long been misrepresented in the media and history books. The ABC limited Series Women of the Movement will do more than set the record straight about the unthinkable events that surrounded Emmett’s tragic death. It also aims to restore humanity to the story of a young boy that has often been reduced to being told through a couple of photographs.
For series showrunner and Executive Producer, Marissa Jo Cerar, it was pivotal that Emmett’s story be told properly. “We just had a picture of a smiling boy and then a brutalized boy. And we had all of these stories, rumors, myths, and I wanted to know, who was he? And it was really important to me that we did not begin the series with a dead body.” She researched Emmet books on the murder, thousands of newspaper articles and hundreds of hours of footage to more accurately tell the young man’s story.
The decision was made early by Cerar to make this a “humanity-forward” historical drama. Instead of focusing on the crime, viewers gain an understanding of who the people involved truly were. “We wanted the first episode to really tell you who these people are and to sit and have dinner with them before we see the tragedy.”
“Emmett (played by Cedric Joe) had just turned 14 before he went to Mississippi to visit family,” said Cerar. “That was so important that we cast someone the appropriate age and that we constantly remind the audience and the world that he was a 14-year-old boy.” It is a fact that makes the horrific crime even more upsetting.
The series begins with the story of Emmet followed by five episodes that go beyond the tragedy to reveal the aftermath of the kidnapping. They tell the emotional and inspirational story of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Adrienne Warren). She risks her life to find justice after his brutal murder in Jim Crow South. Unwilling to let his murder disappear from the headlines, Mamie chose to bear her pain in public, making tough decisions no mother should have to make in a relentless fight for justice. Her actions helped to ignite the civil rights movement as we know it today.
The honor of playing Mamie comes with a great responsibility, explained Warren, “It is literally taking every part of being a storyteller and learning as much as you possibly can about the human being,” said Warren. “Who they are, not who people perceive them to be, but who they are and presenting that in a way that is as truthful as possible as an actress because you want people to see the humanity in the people that I portray.”
“There’s so much responsibility in telling stories of people that are here, especially our ancestors, those that have passed on, and this history is our history. This history is my history,” continued Warren.
Shooting the limited series on location in the places where the real life events took place was something that meant a lot to the cast. Ray Fisher who plays Gene Mobley, a father figure to Emmett, reflected “Being on location in both Tennessee and Mississippi, where we shot a lot of this stuff, a lot of the folks who were playing in our background and all of that were folks who were local to the area.” He continued, “I think everybody understood that the story that we are there to tell is much bigger than any one of us, and, in fact, it might be bigger than all of us.”
“Shooting it and feeling — feeling the dirt that they felt under our feet, seeing and being in some of the buildings that they were in, feeling the ancestors with you, feeling the tension in the environment, in the air that is still there. Not much has changed since 1955,” expressed Warren. “You can feel it. You can feel the gravity of that, which just takes everything that we are doing and elevates it in a way that makes this piece so unbelievably important because it’s about education. This is about informing those who may not have known before so that we don’t continue to perpetuate these cycles that we are doing, just hurting one another.”
The fact that there were people who were part of the cast as extras, who would come up to us and me and say, “I knew so and so” or “I was there when such and such” or “My brother” or “My sister went to school with,” you know?,” added veteran actor Glynn Turman (who plays Mose Wright, Emmet’s Great Uncle). ”So that the humanity that comes with digging up this story and putting it in a proper perspective, for me, is one of the monumental points.”
Living relatives of Emmett and Mamie, Rev. Wheeler Parker and Dr. Marvel Parker, spoke about the importance of the series, “Although the Emmett and Mamie Till story is not a pleasant story, it needs to be told over and over again just to remind us of American history, showing how far we’ve come and how much work we have to do.”
The limited series also stars Tonya Pinkins as Alma Cartham, Chris Coy as J.W. Milam, Carter Jenkins as Roy Bryant and Julia McDermott as Carolyn Bryant.
Women of the Movement premieres on January 6th on ABC and streams on Hulu.