A look back that reverberates into the present, “Women of the Movement” chronicles the murder of Emmett Till, and his mother’s turn to activism in the wake of that horror. Transformed into an ABC limited series, the project carries the throwback feel of miniseries the way broadcasters used to make them, dealing with important topics and painful chapters in history.
The structure proves somewhat ungainly, with the focus on Mamie Till-Mobley (Adrienne Warren, a Tony winner for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”) fading in and out, though the project rallies down the stretch, which includes a devastating reenactment of the crime.
Mamie is introduced giving birth to Emmett (played by Cedric Joe, fresh off the “Space Jam” reboot), a difficult experience that leaves her understandably protective of her son.
When it’s suggested that the 14-year-old Emmett leave Chicago to visit Mississippi in 1955, staying with his great-uncle Mose Wright (Glynn Turman, terrific as always), she warns him about the culture in the Jim Crow South, reminding him, as he repeats, to “keep my eyes down” around White people.
Hanging out with some other boys, Emmett is essentially dared into going into a grocery store, where he smiles at the White woman behind the counter (Julia McDermott). When someone whistles as she leaves it sets off a flurry of racist hysteria, leading to her husband (Carter Jenkins) and brother-in-law (Chris Coy) abducting Emmett, who is later found dead.
The fact that viewers don’t immediately see what transpired doesn’t make those events, or Mamie’s grief, any less devastating. Yet “Women of the Movement” – assembled from a pair of books, including Till-Mobley’s memoir – doesn’t really hit its stride until the mother begins pursuing justice for her son, enlisting reporters and working with the NAACP.
“No one will believe it, what they did,” she says staring at her son’s body, later insisting on an open casket at his funeral, saying, “I want them to see what was taken from me.”
Justice, however, is an elusive commodity, even with a prosecutor (Gil Bellows) willing to pursue the case, going up against a lawyer (Timothy Hutton) eager to tap into the community’s bigotry.
The final chapters (the six parts will air in three weekly installments) become a bit too much of a conventional courtroom drama, down to the balmy ambiance, before Till-Mobley pivots to dealing with the aftermath of the trial and finding her voice as a civil-rights leader.
The title actually signals this story as the first in what’s intended to be an anthology devoted to different women who played key roles in the movement. In addition, ABC will supplement the drama with a docuseries, “Let the World See,” devoted to Till-Mobley’s activism.
Given that the pursuit of justice for Till has continued for more than 75 years, “Women of the Movement” is hardly just a dry recitation of some distant past. It’s an admirable start to a project imbued with a level of ambition and relevance that, in the modern era, broadcasters too rarely exhibit.
“Women of the Movement” premieres Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.