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Women of the Movement costume designer Justine Seymour tells Mamie Till-Mobley’s gut-wrenching story through the evolution of colors.
Over the course of the six-episode limited series, which premieres Jan. 6 on ABC, Till-Mobley’s wardrobe cycles through a variety of palettes — bright and vibrant at the start, followed by dark shades of mourning as the story unfolds.
Women of the Movement follows Till-Mobley (played by Adrienne Warren) in her pursuit of justice for her son, Emmett Till, who was viciously murdered at age 14 in 1955 in the Jim Crow South. Till-Mobley is remembered for her courageous decision to hold an open-casket funeral service for Emmett, an event that exposed the world to the brutality of racism and ultimately helped propel the U.S. civil rights movement.
“When the show starts, [Till-Mobley] is happy,” Seymour says. “She’s in a new relationship with her soon-to-be husband, and her son is the light of her life. She’s this beautiful, enigmatic, well-to-do woman who is very stylish.” And the bright colors she wears reflect that.”
But when Till-Mobley receives the news of her son’s murder, she transitions into darker shades. Upon seeing Emmett’s body for the first time, she wears a dark, blood-red dress. “I wanted to show that her blood was his blood and his blood was hers, and she was wearing his blood,” Seymour recalls.
Near the end of the series, Till-Mobley decides to go back to school — a period Seymour describes as a “rebirth of colors,” including introducing yellow back into her wardrobe. (Till-Mobley, who died in 2003 at age 81, went on to become an activist and educator.)
“What I love most about Justine is that she brought so much dignity to each character,” showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar says of collaborating with Seymour. “That was very important for me, and she did the research and carried that through.”
While in production, there were logistical challenges along the way, from Mississippi snow days to a vigorous COVID-19 testing schedule. Beyond that, on some days it was the weight of the Till-Mobley story that proved to be the toughest challenge.
“We were actually shooting in the real places where real events took place, which was so difficult,” Seymour remembers. “I did loads of research, [which,] I have to say, made me cry a lot. I realized it was an incredibly powerful story and became very excited, but also quite scared to take it on.”
From a historical standpoint, Seymour wanted to remain as accurate as possible.
“I really wanted to be very respectful to the people that had lived this story,” she says. “I wanted to actually re-create the world that [Mamie had] come from.”
Adds Cerar, “Authenticity was really our North Star here with everything — production design, accents, costumes — and Justine made sure of that.”
Seymour sees the story of the Till family as one with continued relevance today. “Very sadly, I feel that this is something that happens again and again,” Seymour says. “I think it’s important that we hear Mamie’s story, because it happened so long ago and yet it’s still so relevant. I really hope that it touches some hearts, and makes people remember that every time a person gets hurt, it ricochets through a community, a family, and it destroys lives.”
She continues, “It’s very obvious that Mamie Till’s life was destroyed after her son was taken from her, even though she was incredibly gracious. She always said that Emmett was on loan to her, and that [her biggest regret] was [that it was] so short. I just think it’s so beautiful and elegant, the way she could accept what had occurred and then utilize what had happened to create a powerful communication to America at that time. I just think that that needs to be re-said, and brought back into our memories, so we can be more respectful toward each other, I hope.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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