Sixty-six years after a 14-year-old Black boy was tortured and murdered because he allegedly whistled at a white woman, ABC is devoting six hours to tell the story of Emmett Till. And the script is largely based on a book written by a white guy who lives in Utah.
“It’s kind of an unlikely thing,” acknowledged Devery Anderson, the author of “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement.” “I just want people now to know who Emmett Till was and know about this case.”
Anderson first learned about what happened to Emmett Till in 1994, he said, and “couldn’t get it out of my head. And I spent the next 10 years just kind of learning what I could about the case. There wasn’t a lot out there.”
In 1996, when he was in his 30s and working for a cellphone company, he took a class on racism at the University of Utah. As part of a class project, he interviewed Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. And he asked the 30 members of the “racially mixed” class how many of them had heard of Emmett Till.
“The teacher and I were the only ones who raised our hands,” he said.
He didn’t write the book hoping it would be turned into the six-hour series “Women of the Movement,” which premieres Thursday at 7 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4, but he couldn’t be more pleased that it was. “After this, I hope that everybody will know who Emmett Till is,” Anderson said.
A horrific crime
In 1955, a boy from Chicago — Emmett Till — was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Shortly after he was accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, at a grocery store, Emmett was kidnapped, tortured, brutally beaten, shot and killed. His body was weighted down and thrown in a river.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made national headlines when she insisted on an open-casket wake and funeral, hoping her son’s bloated, mutilated body would show the world what happened to him.
“There’s a certain power when people come across the photos of his face,” Anderson said. “Even today, they get emotional, just like the people who filed by the casket in 1955. They see racism at its ugliest.”
Witnesses disagreed about whether Emmett actually whistled at Bryant. And Bryant changed her story, alleging that Emmett grabbed her and asked her out on a date. “Anything you could turn into a sexual encounter between a Black male and a white female would have got the blood boiling on any white Southern jury,” Anderson said.
The two white men charged in Emmett’s death — Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Millam — were acquitted by an all-white jury. The suspects later admitted to the crime.
The definitive book
After Anderson interviewed Mamie Till Mobley over the phone in 1996, they remained in contact until shortly before her death in 2003.
“The case went, in my mind, from just a historical one to a personal one,” he said. “But when I started writing the book, I knew I had to just see it through the eyes of a historian.”
The U.S Justice Department reopened the case in 2004, and a great deal of information was released. “I thought — it’s time that the book I always wanted to read got written,” Anderson said. “And I’m just going to do it myself because there’s never been a comprehensive account of the case with all the twists and turns.”
His book is incredibly well researched — there are 45 pages of notes documenting his sources.
“I’d done years of genealogy and other historical stuff in Mormon studies, and I knew how to research,” said Anderson. (His other books are about Latter-day Saint subjects — temple worship, the school of the prophets and Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Annointed.) “I don’t like to leave any stone unturned. I am a stickler for accuracy. And I knew in the Till case, I wanted to tackle all the different, contradictory stories.”
Not only do witness contradict each other, but a number of those involved — including Mamie Till Mobley herself — changed their stories over the years. “You have to try to determine, as best you can, which is the most accurate,” Anderson said. “And that’s not always easy to do.”
Anderson did a lot of his own interviews. One of his sources was Charlotte Buchanan, the sister of Carolyn Bryant. “I was the only writer that she’d ever talked to in all these years,” he said.
(Buchanan is not identified as a source in the book. She died in March, during the filming of the miniseries.)
A seven-year trip to TV
In January 2015, seven months before his book was published, Anderson got a call from a producer who wanted to option it for a movie. That contract was signed with a group that included actor Casey Affleck in April 2015.
At the same time, a group that included actor Will Smith and rapper Jay-Z was working on an Emmett Till miniseries for HBO, and they were also interested in Anderson’s book. The two groups combined their efforts, and in 2016 contracts were signed with HBO. But it sat waiting for two years. And when HBO’s parent company was sold in 2018, the project was dropped.
ABC picked up an option in 2019, and they greenlit the production in 2020. Production was delayed several months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but filming began in January 2021 and was completed in April.
“It’s been a seven-year process,” Anderson said. And it’s part of what ABC and the producers hope will be a larger project highlighting other “Women of the Movement.”
(The miniseries is now tagged as being “based on” both Anderson’s book and Mamie Till-Mobley’s book, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America,” which was published after her death. The producers added “Death of Innocence” in August, four months after shooting was completed.)
Executive producer/series creator/showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar said that “the Devery book and also having access to Devery was helpful.” The two spoke several times before and during filming, and Cerar spent “months reading every single thing I could,” as well as watching newsreel footage, reading court transcripts and FBI documents.
“And then I had to set it aside and then say, ‘OK, how do I turn this into a television series? How do I make it entertaining? How do I add levity?’ I didn’t want this to feel so grim and overwhelming because it’s about a woman fighting back.”
In the end, Anderson is glad it ended up as a six-hour miniseries rather than a theatrical film.
“You can go into more detail and capture more of the story. There’s no real filler in there,” he said. “I don’t know how somebody would tell the story in just a couple of hours on film. … They’ve done a phenomenal job and I’m really, really proud of what I’ve seen.”
He’s a juror
Anderson is actually in the series. He was on the set in Mississippi for three weeks in March, playing one of the jurors at the trial of Emmett’s killers. “They shot it in the original courthouse where the trial took place. And it was very surreal for me to be there,” he said. “I’d seen it so many times in my head, and in photographs and in news footage. To see Glynn Turman portraying (Emmett Till’s great-uncle] Mose Wright, standing and pointing at the killers in that same exact spot — that was a dream come true.”
The cast includes Adrienne Warren, starring as Mamie Till-Mobley; Tonya Pinkins as Mamie’s mother, Alma; Ray Fisher as Gene Mobley; Timothy Hutton as defense attorney Jesse J. Breland; Dan Byrd as reporter Dan Wakefield; Carter Jenkins as Roy Bryant; Julia McDermott as Carolyn Bryant; and Chris Coy as J.W. Milam.
Anderson is Juror No. 2, and the irony wasn’t lost on him. “Well, it was kind of odd to portray someone who helped acquit them,” Anderson said.
But he wanted to be on the set during the filming, and — because of COVID-19 restrictions — the only people allowed on set were those who had to be there. The trial stretches across three episodes, and the jurors had to be there throughout the proceedings.
“That assured me a seat in the courtroom every day for the filming of the trial,” Anderson said. “And I wanted to be there so I could just watch it unfold. And I had to portray kind of a bad guy to do it.”
He did get to play one of the two jurors who briefly held out as the jury deliberated. “So it took me a couple of rounds of voting before I caved and voted with the others. So I at least had that.”
Just a boy
Emmett Till was just 14 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. It’s something the killers’ attorneys and the Southern press went out of their way to obscure after the killing.
“A lot of people today still don’t realize he was a boy,” Anderson said. “They hear the name Emmett Till and they might know that he was killed for whistling at a white woman. But they don’t know that he was only 14, and that two grown men did this to him. It’s hard for people to accept. It’s a terrible wakeup call.”
Cerar said it “was really important to me that we state his age in every episode” and that they cast “someone the appropriate age and that we constantly remind the audience and the world that he was a 14-year-old boy.”
Cedric Joe, who plays Emmett, turned 16 during the filming.
Racism persists today
The Emmett Till case remains shocking 61 years after he was murdered. And it’s unsettling because headlines today aren’t that different from headlines in 1955.
“This is a historical case, but it’s also a contemporary one,” Anderson said. “Every time there’s any shooting or killing of a young black male, it always gets compared to Emmett Till.”
In 1955, many Southerners insisted that the murder of Emmett Till was not racially motivated. In recent years — in recent months — many have argued that the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philado Castile, Daunte Wright and others had nothing to do with race.
“We don’t question that Emmett Till was killed because he was Black,” Anderson said. “What people need is time and perspective to come to the right conclusion.”
Turman pointed out that the day the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery were convicted would’ve been Mamie Till Mobley’s 100th birthday. “There’s some kind of poetic justice in that, but it just also lets you know how the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said.
Then and now, some members of the community rally around the killers.
“And it wasn’t because people thought they were innocent,” Anderson said. “It was because people thought, ‘If we give in on this, then there’ll be a domino effect … and it’ll be the end of segregation and we can’t have that.’ And so having a couple of men get away with killing a teenage boy was something they were willing to embrace to keep their way of life. That, to me, is the bigger tragedy.”
“Women of the Movement” pulls surprisingly few punches. Characters use the N-word, which is virtually unheard of on network TV. Anderson said he believes viewers will be “shocked.”
“I was glad that ABC didn’t censor [characters] using the N-word. You have to use it when you’ve got these guys that are going out to kill this kid,” he said. “And I was worried ABC might not show Emmett and his battered and decomposed face — and they showed that.”
The miniseries steps back from the graphic horror until the final episode, when the kidnapping, torture and killing are recreated, along with the funeral and wake.
“It’s hard to watch,” Anderson said. “People are very hesitant to show a child being killed or the body of a child who has been killed. You just don’t see that. But that’s such an integral part of the story and you can’t water it down.”
Rev. Wheeler Parker, Emmett Till’s cousin and a witness to his abduction, agreed that it’s important for people to see what happened.
“It needs to be told over and over again, just to remind us of American history, showing how far we’ve come and how much work we have to do,” said Parker. “We hope that the … audience can view this series and learn from it the truth and have the fire and the ability to stand up for what’s right, regardless of what the cost is.”
“Women of the Movement” premieres with two back-to-back episodes on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 7 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4. Episodes 3-4 will air Jan. 13, and episodes 5-6 on Jan. 20.
Each two-hour telecast will be followed at 9 p.m. by hourlong episodes of “Let the World See,” a documentary about the killing of Emmett Till.