Nearly seventy years ago, in Mississippi, the lynching of Emmett Till sparked a movement, one chronicled in a compelling new limited series debuting on ABC on January 6 focused on the women of the civil rights era.
Women of the Movement traces its roots to Devery S. Anderson, the Utah-based author of the groundbreaking 2015 book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Anderson initially heard of Till in 1994, in school, and soon the topic consumed him. With the help of his local library’s phone book, he contacted Mamie Till-Mobley, Till’s mother, and began to investigate the murder and coinciding 1955 trial that ended in not-guilty verdicts. Anderson stayed in contact with Till-Mobley until her death in 2003. The following year, the federal government reopened the case, but no convictions came.
Anderson began working on a book about the case. According to Anderson, “There had never been a book on Emmett Till out that I felt like needed to be out. I decided to write the book that I always wanted to read.” The resulting history included documentation surrounding the lynching, as well as the information from the additional investigation that spanned from 2004 to 2007, making it the most comprehensive telling of the story to date.
Prior to the book’s release, Rosanna Grace, the cofounder and president of the production company Serendipity Group Inc., contacted Anderson and optioned the rights to the book. “Everything clicked,” recalls Grace, who originally planned to turn the book into a feature film. At the same time, however, Jay-Z, the producer Aaron Kaplan, and Will Smith were also looking into creating a miniseries about Till based on Anderson’s work. The producers consolidated their ideas, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, decided to make the story an anthology instead, one centered on the women of the civil rights era, with each season highlighting a different influential figure.
Season one of Women of the Movement will tell the story of Mamie Till-Mobley—played by the Virginia native and Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren—and her relentless pursuit of justice for her son’s murder. Behind the camera is another group of talented, powerful women: the screenwriter Marissa Jo Cerar (whose work includes The Handmaid’s Tale) and the directors Tina Mabry (also a Mississippi native), Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Julie Dash.
Greenlighted on August 28, 2020—the sixty-fifty anniversary of Till’s death—the series came together within five months to film in Greenwood, Mississippi, once known as the “Cotton Capital of the World.” Till’s murder occurred right outside of town, in Money; producers not only wanted to keep the script as historically accurate as possible, but the filming sites, too, including the newly restored Tallahatchie County Courthouse, the location of the 1955 trial.
For Carissa Gardner, a Mississippi native and featured extra, the courtroom scenes proved emotional. “Just the fact that we were sitting in the actual courthouse was amazing,” she says. “We were together not for us, but for that child. For all the things that get swept under the rug and don’t get heard. We do this to remember.” Anderson, the author, had the opportunity to play one of the courtroom jurors, and recalls a similar feeling. “To see the trial unfold was very surreal,” he says. “I’ve seen so many photos and invested so much time in this, that it was unlike anything I have ever experienced and would likely experience again.”
After the virtual premiere of Women of the Movement at the American Black Film Festival in November, Warren said, “There’s so much love and heart at the center of this piece. I think that doing this piece in the height of moments of insurrection…it felt like we were doing a period piece, but we weren’t.…It made [Women of the Movement] even more important.”
By recounting Till-Mobley’s ineffable bravery, producers hope to educate a new generation, perhaps unaware of Till’s murder and the injustices that followed. Of how an unimaginable tragedy created a lasting impact. Of how a glass-topped casket encouraged others to become activists for change.