by Carey Miller
The majority of ABC’s “Women of the Movement” limited series was filmed in and around the Mississippi Delta, with some scenes shot at the actual locations they took place.
“Mississippi was a blessing,” said location manager Wendall Hinkle. “If we hadn’t been able to do it there, I don’t know how we could have done it, and it wouldn’t have looked as good.”
The series, which airs its final two episodes Jan. 20 at 7 p.m., dramatizes the events surrounding the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The series focuses on his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her ceaseless pursuit of justice for her son that inspired others of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Hinkle, who is based in Nashville, was originally looking for locations to film the series in Tennessee. But, he says, since COVID had halted film production everywhere, he was able to conduct more extensive research. That included a fact-finding trip to see the actual historical locations.
He contacted the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, whose executive director Patrick Weems offered to give him a guided tour to connect the dots of where the various events in the script occurred.
“You can’t recreate the Mississippi Delta,” Weems said. “It is its own environment; it is its own special place. I think Wendall realized if you’re going to be true to the story, you’ve got to do it here.”
One of the locations they visited was the courthouse in Sumner where the actual trial of the two men accused and eventually acquitted of murdering Till took place.
“Racial reconciliation really starts with telling the truth,” Weems said. “We restored the courthouse so that anybody could learn about the story and the systems of racism that took place, so we make sure that it never happens again. We worked eight years as a community across racial lines and raised over $4 million for that effort. Wendall walked into the courtroom, and it was already a movie set, right? From the table, to the jury box, everything—we had worked extremely hard to make it look exactly the way it did in 1955.”
Having access to that location played a big part in the decision to bring the production to Mississippi.
“When we found out we could have the courthouse where the trial actually happened, and they were willing to shut it down for us, it just all made sense,” Hinkle said. “We were looking at possibly having to build that entire set, which would have been an amazing amount of money. And we just got offered a lot of other things in Mississippi, including a much better film incentive program.”
The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program offers a 25 percent cash rebate for a production’s spending with local businesses, and 30 percent for the salaries of Mississippi residents.
The program is managed by the Mississippi Film Office, part of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state agency that oversees tourism. Established in 1973, the Film Office is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. The office’s mission is to foster the growth of the film industry in Mississippi, connect filmmakers with necessary resources and to cultivate and promote filmmaking by, for and about Mississippians.
“Having a major production like ‘Women of the Movement’ come to our state helps advance our mission in so many ways,” said Nina Parikh, director of the Mississippi Film Office. “Because it was a television production with a much longer shooting schedule than the average feature film, the impact on the economy of the Delta was tremendous, and the production provided long-term jobs for many Mississippi residents working within the film industry.”
And because the production started in January 2021 while businesses were still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the impact on the local economy was even more substantial.
“I’m not sure some of our hotels would have been able to keep their doors open without it,” said Danielle Morgan, who was director of Visit Greenwood at the time and now serves as executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association. “It was a huge infusion to them, as well as local restaurants and other businesses you might not even think about. Like a locally owned home improvement store, just for the paint they bought alone. It really touches the community in a lot of ways people might not even realize.”
Dustin Brantley, a native of Clinton who works in the film industry, served as a buyer and on-set dresser for the production. In his role as a buyer, he was tasked with purchasing a lot of the items and props used to make the production period accurate.
“We were based out of Greenwood, but shopping for that show involved us driving all over the state,” he said. “You had to pretty much know every antiques dealer within a three-hour radius to acquire the amount of stuff we needed for the show. We shopped from Jackson to Hattiesburg, all the way up to Southaven. We were really all over the state. People underestimate how much money is spent locally on a project of this size. It goes on and on, from the costume department to the set builders. Then there’s the hotels, the gas stations for travel–there’s so many layers.”
Morgan believes the show will also have a lasting impact for tourism.
“Civil rights tourism was already one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism in the state,” she said. “I definitely saw that in Greenwood with the Emmett Till Memory Project, which catalogs all of the important sites in both the Mississippi Delta and Chicago to help visitors to interpret his story. I definitely think there will be an increase in visitors as international awareness increases due to the show.”
Morgan said that Greenwood still sees a lasting impact from one of the last major productions filmed there, 2011’s “The Help.”
“I mean, here we were 10 years later, and I was still giving group tours on the sites from the movie,” she said.
The area having previously hosted film production was yet another factor in the decision to bring Women of the Movement to the Delta, Hinkle said.
“That was the thing—can Mississippi even do this?” he said. “I had never worked in the state. The one thing I knew was The Help had filmed in Greenwood. And a number of the people who ended up working on our show were Nashville people who had gone down and worked on that movie. So, we had that in our back pocket. Greenwood’s had a major motion picture, and we’ve had crew, our regular go-to guys, who have been there.”
And given the series’ sensitive subject matter, there were initial concerns about how the locals would respond to the show being filmed there. But the crew soon found interest in the production was highly positive, whether it was locals wanting to be extras, or sharing their own stories or their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of living there when it happened, Brantley said.
“More often than not, we had so many people stopping to thank us for coming back there to tell that story, because too many times we’ve seen stories told about the state of Mississippi that weren’t shot there at all, and that’s disheartening,” Brantley said. “I think having people from the state help tell the story helped tremendously.”
Hinkle said working on the show helped shatter any preconceived notions he personally had about the state.
“I ended up being in Mississippi for the better part of eight months,” he said. “It’s not like when you roll in and shoot a couple of scenes for a movie in a weekend. I was there. I lived there. I met the people and I adored Mississippi. I would be happy to come back.”
Weems hopes that the show will bring greater awareness to Emmett and Mamie’s story. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center supports the creation of an Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Historic Park, which would allow for the preservation of historic sites associated with their story under the National Park Service.
“It is a heart-wrenching story, but you have to talk about the painful part in order to talk about how what happened to Emmett, and what Mamie did, changed the world,” he said. “It was the catalyst for the civil rights movement because of how horrific it was. We really hope that this will galvanize people to reach out to their legislators and say it’s time for there to be a national park and that the Mississippi Delta deserves that type of attention.”
Tonight’s episodes will conclude Mamie’s story, but the hope is that “Women of the Movement” will continue for more seasons that focus on other notable women of the civil rights era.
“We would of course love them to return to film future seasons,” Parikh said. “One of our goals is to have more TV series in constant production to keep our resident workforce employed and growing. And personally, I have to say that I am proud my role with the Film Office allowed me to have been the tiniest bit involved in bringing this story to a wider audience.”
Brantley said that sentiment was echoed by all those involved on set.
“I think everyone involved–producers, directors, all the way down–couldn’t agree more just how special and important it was to be shooting in the real places,” Brantley said. “You could feel the history, and that’s something even the best carpenters and scenarists in the world can’t recreate.
“Working on this series felt like something deeper than your average feature or TV work. It’s truly hands down the most important project I’ve even worked on and had special meaning for me, having grown up in the state. It’s important for the state of Mississippi and to the country. It was very special. I mean, it makes your hair stand up.”