Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012 became the catalyst for many to learn about the 1955 kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Just like Martin’s death is credited for sparking the Black Lives Matter movement, Till’s death is also recognized for boosting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And JET, EBONY’s sister publication, played a pivotal role by being the first national magazine to run open casket images of Till’s mutilated body.
But while some of us may be familiar with that historic event, one of the many truths the six-episode ABC limited series, Women of the Movement—produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, and directed by four Black women: Gina Prince-Bythewood, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, and Tina Mabry—reveals is that we don’t know nearly enough about this history. Although we have seen Till referenced in recent years, even memorably popping up in an episode of Lovecraft Country, most of us know very little about him and are especially unaware of what his mother Mamie Till-Mobley went through to make sure we even know what we think we know. That is one of the many reasons the Tony-award winning actress Adrienne Warren, , tells EBONY she signed up to play Till-Mobley.
“I knew what happened, but I didn't know enough about who it happened to,” she explains. “We have a lot of tragedy as Black Americans, but what are the nuances of the tragedies? That is the conversation we started to have in this series. We don’t just talk about what happened, but we talk about who it happened to and what were those moments in between.”
Those moments in between are substantial. “Well, the first thing is that she was so young when this happened to her. She was 33 years old when Emmett was taken from her and murdered,” Warren shares. “And she was not an activist. She was a single mom who loved her son. And the foundation of every decision she made was love.”
The relationship Till-Mobley had with her son, played by 16-year-old Cedric Joe (who starred as LeBron James' son Dom James in Space Jam: A New Legacy), was not one Warren had expected. “Mamie and Emmett were a lot more like brother and sister than they were mom and son. And Alma, who was Mamie’s mom [played by Tony winner Tonya Pinkins] was somewhat more the mom to both of them.”
To cultivate that relationship, Warren says she and CJ, as she calls Joe, “wrote letters to each other” and “did a lot of prep work” like having family dinners together. Warren even taught Joe to sing.
Preparing to play Mobley-Till was, of course, a major undertaking for Warren. As co-founder of the nonprofit Broadway Advocacy Coalition, launched in 2016 with six other artists to “combat systemic racism” within the institution, she is especially sensitive to how historic figures like Mobley-Till are presented.
“It's a huge challenge and a huge responsibility anytime I'm telling stories that are our stories first off and anytime I’m telling stories of an ancestor,” she says. “I really wanted to do whatever I could do to lose myself in this role so that people could just see Mamie and people could just learn as much as they possibly could about her.”
In the middle of a mother’s greatest tragedy, Till-Mobley endured a lot—from getting confirmation that her son was dead to getting his body back to Chicago and later attending his trial in Mississippi—in the spotlight, forcing her to become an activist. Warren credits the unwavering support of Till-Mobley’s family and community, as well as the NAACP and the Black press, for giving her that courage. Of the latter, Warren says, “The one thing that helped Mamie at that time was the Black press. She realized that she had a voice there. JET magazine, and everyone that showed up, and the NAACP, their support truly helped to empower her to make that tough decision.”
Warren says that along with Till-Mobley’s 2004 book Death of Innocence, published a year after her death at age 81, the Black press was essential to helping her play the activist. And believe it or not, fashion was also critical to Till-Mobley during that time.
“Because of the Black press, we had so many incredible photos and references to her wardrobe,” notes Warren. “So much of who she was, was actually connected to fashion.” Consequently, Till-Mobley put incredible care into what she wore during press conferences, in the courtroom, and as a public speaker touring with the NAACP. “It was so important to Alma and Mamie that she present herself in a certain way,” adds Warren.
Filming in Greenwood, Mississippi greatly impacted Warren. “I'm actually from Virginia [and] one thing I know is a lot of the South has not changed. This happened in 1955. And a lot of things, especially in small towns, haven't changed much," explains the actress. "So shooting in Mississippi in the middle of a pandemic, the middle of insurrection, was quite heavy.”
Warren can’t stress the importance of this series and our history in general, especially as Critical Race Theory conversations about what can and can’t be taught in schools continue to rage. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle, and we just aren't taught about those pieces. We're just shown the last picture and that’s why it’s so important,” she stresses. “I want people to not only just lean into the story, and lean into that people, but lean into the history of this series because it's ours. And if others don't want us to teach it and they don't want to share it, then we have to take care of our own and make sure it’s not lost.”
Women of the Movement begins airing on ABC on January 6 with two episodes, followed by two episodes on January 13, and culminating with two episodes on January 20.