Review of the Women of the Movement — sympathetic yet unfocused Emmett Till
The film begins with agony-filled cries from a young Mamie Till (Broadway star Adrienne Warren), a black woman whose childbirth symptoms are neglected by a white nurse in a sterile 1941 hospital. It’s a sign of what’s to come in a series that follows Mamie’s son, Emmett, from his horrific, racist murder by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 through Mamie’s grief-fueled activism and the culprits’ final acquittal. But, significantly, Women of the Movement opens with the pleasure of life: first, the newborn Emmett, adored by his mother, and later the adolescent whose murder enraged the nation.
The first of a six-part series, directed by Marissa Jo Cerar (The Handmaid’s Tale) and executive produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, jumps from 1941 to the summer of 1955 in Chicago, where Mamie lives in relative comfort with Emmett (Cedric Joe), a charming, soft-hearted boy who is convincingly on the cusp of childhood and adolescence. The series follows a network procedural’s tight timeline and sign-posting. Emmett, yearning for adventure, prefers to spend time with his great-uncle Mose (Glynn Turman) in the Mississippi Delta over his mother and her adoring lover Gene (Ray Fisher); Mamie is reluctant, scared of Emmett’s innocence about the deep Jim Crow south’s norms, but she eventually relents. At the railway station, they part with a heartfelt embrace.
The fateful encounter between Emmett and grocery cashier Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott), a white woman, is depicted ambiguously enough to reflect existing questions (we don’t see what Emmett says to her, there is a wolf-whistle but it’s unclear who it’s from or to), while remaining crystal clear on the dynamics: Carolyn, bound by a code of hate and fear, reacts ominously in rage; Emmett, lighthearted and friendly, responding innocently. Emmett had been kidnapped from his bed by Carolyn’s husband Roy (Carter Jenkins) and his half-brother JW Milam (Chris Coy) and hauled away in a truck, never to be seen alive again at the conclusion of the first episode.
The final five episodes are a mix of network procedural and educational biopic (complete with on-the-nose dialogue and production values), focusing on Mamie’s desperate search for her son, her insistence that his mutilated body not be hidden from the public, and her refusal to let the south’s presumed injustice win without a fight. “Let the public see what they did to my baby,” she famously screamed upon seeing his battered face, a phrase Warren, who portrays Mamie with a stage actor’s overemphasis at times, invests with a deep reservoir of resilience.