The Exceptional Women of the Movement
ABC Throws Down The Gauntlet for Broadcast TV Being Peak TV
It wasn’t that long ago — hell it was in my lifetime — that network television was the go to source for extraordinary and even average mini-series (as they were known then). NBC was the voice of so many fantasy mini-series from Gulliver’s Travels to The 10th Kingdom. CBS was the home of some of the greatest Western limited series, particularly the works of Larry McMurtry. And from 1990 to 2005, ABC was the home to some extraordinary adaptations of Stephen King from The Stand to Storm of the Century.
But after the surge in reality TV prestige projects or even limited ones have basically become a thing of the past. In the past decade only ABC has been willing the raise the bar occasionally with the exceptional limited series on the battle for gay rights When We Rise and the extraordinary American Crime one of the greatest achievements of the 2010s. The latter received rave reviews, multiple Emmy nominations and awards — and no audience. Viewers voted they’d rather watch Shondaland instead.
As a new year begins ABC is once again demonstrating its courage in willing to fight for both prestigious limited series, both in acting and in subject matter. In a country still striving for racial equality the network is showing a daring new series about how far we (still haven’t) come. Women of the Movement a new anthology series focused on the African-American women who led the civil rights movement debuted with two episodes last night that will focus on a leader that until recently history has forgotten, Mamie Till-Mobley the mother of Emmett Till, the fourteen year old Chicago boy whose brutal murder in Mississippi was vital to the changes in the movement.
The first two episodes make it painfully clear that first and foremost Mamie was a mother. Giving birth to a child who was not expected to live long and be institutionalized if he did, Mamie managed to raise a normal child — quite remarkable given the nature of his birth. In the opening sequence, Mamie holds her baby son and says: “I’m not going to give you up” and in a historical sense, she never did.
When Emmett goes on a trip to visit his uncle in Mississippi, Mamie justifiably has forebodings. Even after he manages to persuade her, she spends the last possible minute trying to tell him every possible thing he shouldn’t do down south. She spends the next week staying in her bed, desperate for a phone call from him and is elated when it comes and he sounds just fine. But neither of them knows when he makes that call, he is doomed.
We’ve seen earlier that week that Emmett has gone to a shop owned by a white woman to buy candy. The series never shows us what actually happens and really, it’s irrelevant. She drives after them with a gun. People in town start to ‘talk’. That woman decides she’s been threatened and tells her husband what happened. And then one night, a man with a gun comes to the family house and drags him out of it.
When Mamie learns what happens she becomes more than a mother. She mobilizes the NAACP and they mobilize the press. The reaction in Chicago is completely different in Mississippi — Till’s family talks to the sheriff knowing nothing will happen. There are reports that Emmett is alive — but the local law is covering. And eventually it’s only a matter of time before his body is found.
Holding all of this together is Adrienne Warren, who is magnificent as Mamie. She is gentle, pure and hopeful even through the dark moments and the moment where she suddenly becomes determined to get justice is one of the most galvanic I’ve seen in awhile. No matter what, she wants her son’s body back. When the undertaker tells her not to see it, she refuses. Then she demands it photographed and an open casket. It’s not her job to look away and she’ll damned if the world does either. Warren immediately goes to the forefront of Best Actress Emmy nods this year.
Some will criticize Women of the Movement of being ‘by the numbers’ as if somehow looking at this utterly horrific event and horrid miscarriage of justice — nowhere near the first or the last of its kind — could be considered something to be done ‘pedantically’. And I suppose if it were done on cable or streaming, it might be considered just traditional. But it’s not. It’s being done on network television, a medium that has spent far too much of its existence trying not to offend anybody and certainly not telling stories that don’t have happy endings even when it was fully involved in the Peak TV era. The fact that this story — which as far as I know has never been told on television in any form — is being told on ABC is in its way as revolutionary an idea as Netflix developing streaming series. Even if you choose to view it as a purely cynical attempt for ABC to compete for Emmys this year — something, by the way, it’s become nearly impossible for network television to do in any fashion — there are ways to do that sure as hell wouldn’t involve telling one of the darkest stories in human history.
So don’t just consider Women of the Movement a limited series that you should definitely see this year (though you should absolutely). Think of it as ABC throwing down the gauntlet for network television to go back to the days when taking risks meant blocking off an entire week of programming for one series. They called them ‘event’ series for a reason. Women of the Movement isn’t quite there yet, but if it succeeds — and I really hope it does — it’s something that broadcast television needs to consider if it’s to have any future at all.
My score: 4.5 stars.