Gina Prince Bythewood recently directed the pilot episode for ABC’s series “Women of the Movement,” which premiered on January 6th.
The six-episode series tells the story of Emmett Till from his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley’s perspective. The series follows her fight for justice after her son was brutally murdered in 1955 in the Jim Crow South. Each episode follows her journey and relentless efforts to constantly bring attention to the gruesome acts brought upon her 14-year-old son. Till-Mobley’s courageous efforts allowed her to become a prominent civil rights figure whose devastating loss allowed her to find her voice. This series highlights an unfortunate reality for many Black mothers who are continuously put in this position due to others racial prejudices.
Bythewood is known for numerous films such as Love & Basketball, Disappearing Acts, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights, etc. Her films have a huge impact when discussing Black entertainment. She spoke with our correspondent Rebecca Eugene regarding the series “Women of the Movement,” and what she hopes viewers will take away from it. She also described the immense amount of research this series took to ensure its authenticity.
The six-episode series will be aired on ABC in three parts every Thursday
The Knockturnal: Tell me about the ABC series ‘Women of the Movement’?
Gina Prince Bythewood: It’s a story about Emmett Till and Mamie Till , it’s a story that I’ve heard, many times and thought I knew. Until, I started working on the project and realized how much I didn’t know about Mamie and her impact on the civil rights movement. What she had to go through, to go from a grieving mother to an activist and the incredible strength and courage that that took at that time. Also, we’re so used to hearing about Emmett as a boy who was murdered and to be able to get to know who he was a boy, a 14 year old boy. To be reminded constantly that he was a boy and that was a really big push for us in how we wanted to shoot and tell the story. I have two boys so it was always a reminder to me and really telling their story, their fight and the tragedy. What came out of that tragedy was a woman who found her voice and was one of the sparks of the civil rights movement.
The Knockturnal: What was your thought process when directing a show that details both a monumental and devastating moment in history?
Gina Prince Bythewood: Honestly starts with an incredible sense of responsibility to get it right. This is a real story and a story that has not been told fully and knowing that we were going to be telling the story on a platform like ABC and hulu. The reach that we had, that we had to get it right and we had to honor Emmett and Mamie who are not here to tell their own stories. We took Marissa Jo Cerar who created the show and wrote it, showrunners, the directors, the actors took that responsibility everyday of work, rehearsal, fitting, and every moment of it constantly reminding ourselves of that. So much research went into it and you mentioned details, details are so important. Down to the type of shoes that they wore, what was in his room, he loved baseball so having a bat in there – you know creating these 360 characters. Just really trying to tell the true stories of who they were, bring their humanity and that comes out of research. All of us did an incredible amount of research, not only academic so to speak in terms of reading all the books written about Mamie, written by Mamie. But, also talking to mothers who have lost their children, Lucy McBeth, was a huge resource for us and was able to talk to the actors about what that’s like and how you find your voice in such a tragedy. Connecting past and present was good for us as well.
The Knockturnal: “Women of the Movement” makes me think and make the comparison to Black mothers who continue to experience the unfortunate reality of losing a child due to someone else’s racial prejudices. What’s something you had to keep in mind to make it relatable for them as well outside of tragedy and grief?
Gina Prince Bythewood: I think it was to have that constant reminder that they were a mother first. Lucy McBeth said something that really stuck with me, MJ and Adrienne – which is the before and after. What her life was before and what her life was the moment her son was taken from her.I just really wanted to capture the before, what it is to be a mother that pain that you have when your child is out of your sight, the things I could bring personally having black boys knowing every time they got out of the house trying to bring that connection. But also to be able to show the incredible love we have for our children because that’s something that gets lost often times, but again really showing her as a mother first and the love mother and son have for eachother.
The Knockturnal: What do you hope viewers will take away and learn from this series?
Gina Prince Bythewood: Honestly foremost I want Carolyn Bryant in a jail cell. She has been able to escape and not be held accountable for part in murder of a 14 year old boy. Throughout this whole process that is the thing my anger towards her, going through the research and then shooting this her culpability, her lies, what she did – she’s never been held accountable. I pray that this series sparks another investigation to put her behind bars. For us it was the resilience of Mamie and the fight that she had. I pray that it never happens again but we know it will, when another mother has to go on television to talk about her son being murdered and fighting for justice. We’ve seen what happens behind that and before that and the aftermath of that and have empathy and hopefully join in the fight for these mothers to get justice because we’ve been inspired by and seen what Mamie had to do to do that.
The Knockturnal: While directing this episode that depicts such a traumatic moment in history, what are somethings you had to keep in mind to ensure the story is depicted both authentically and visually?
Gina Prince Bythewood: By far the kidnapping of Emmett at night. I was so scared because it is so horrifying to have you capture or have you make it real. I didn’t want it to feel like we shot it like a horror story or mystery or a thriller, I just wanted the audience to feel the truth and authenticity of that moment. So that really dictated the decision I made to want to shoot it all in one shot, so it would take the audience moment by monet. What Uncle Mose went through and the complete horror by Wheeler who was lying in bed listening to this happening and of course Emmett who was woken up and has no idea what’s going on – looking to his uncle for help and trying to figure out what’s happening and agreeing to go with these men. Not ever comprehending the horror that was about to befall upon him. I just wanted to shoot it simply and raw and just tell what really happened in that moment in a way that the audience could feel what Emmett must have felt.
The Knockturnal: Growing up, I’ve constantly heard about the story about Emmet Till but to be able to see it visually made me even more emotional. What’s something you had to tell the actors if they did get too emotional?
Gina Prince Bythewood: I gave a speech to the crew prior to the kidnapping scene. We had to tell the truth of what happened in that moment and to please understand what the actors had to pull from personally. To be truthful in these moments, be sensitive, be quiet and give them their space. All of us in that room, whether you’re a cameraman, boom, take in the sensitivity and the truth of what this scene is depicting and everybody came together that night to do just that.
The Knockturnal: You’ve directed numerous well known films such as Love & Basketball, Disappearing Acts, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights and much more. These movies are known staples and constantly mentioned when discussing movies surrounding black entertainment. How do you feel knowing films you’ve directed are talked about in such a way?
Gina Prince Bythewood: It’s humbling as an artist to have your work resonate, that’s what you want – you want your work to move people. So it never, ever, ever gets old when someone comes up to me and says they love my work or they were inspired. It’s inspiring to hear that as well because what we do is very, very hard as far as to write a script, get a movie made, it’s hard to direct. But, when you know that you have a cause bigger than yourself, that it’s important to put ourselves up on screen in ways that we can be inspired by or inspire to be that has always been my drive. When people come and say that the work resonates with them, it fuels that fight, it’s a beautiful thing – literally just today an NBA player wore some KD’s that had the ‘Love and Basketball’ posters painted on them.
The Knockturnal: What advice would you give to other filmmakers and people who aspire to be film directors, when they’re contemplating which stories they want to create and tell?
Gina Prince Bythewood: Be the first audience. So make something that you would want to see, not what you think others want to see. I think that people get trapped when they’re trying to follow trends or try to make what they think the industry would make. Following your heart, doing a project that is passionate to you, doing a story only you can tell – those are the hardest to get made but are absolutely the most rewarding. It’s really, really hard and if you are not doing something that you’re passionate about when you get that fifth, sixth, seventh “No” you’re going to give up. But if you’re doing a show or doing a story or doing a film that you’re passionate about, a story you have to tell – that gets you past the No’s.