When “Women of the Movement” executive producer Gina Prince-Bythewood stepped behind the camera to direct the show’s first episode, she called on her frequent collaborators, editor Terilyn Shropshire and cinematographer Tami Reiker, to help establish the visuals for Emmett Till’s murder.
The six-part series, set in 1955, tracks Mamie Till-Mobley’s (Adrienne Warren) fight to make sure her son would not be forgotten, and how she played a key part in the civil rights movement.
Prince-Bythewood, Shropshire and Reiker talked about laying the foundations for the series in the pilot.
What did you know about Mamie’s fight and how much did you know about this story?
Gina Prince-Bytthewood: I’ve known the story for a very long time. It’s a story that influenced my show “Shots Fired.” It’s a horrifying story that’s still relevant today, and in doing a story like this, we knew the self-imposed pressure, that we had to get it right, and that permeated everything.
Tami, talk about getting the call from Gina, what was next for you as far as research and how were you going to tell this story as a cinematographer?
Tami Reiker: One of the most incredible parts of this journey was being in the real location. That rarely happens when you’re shooting a TV show or a movie where a historical event took place, a lot of times, you’re reenacting in a different city. So, that was powerful to just be there.
Teri, Gina always brings you on early, how does that help you in your craft?
Terilyn Shropshire: That’s truly the privilege because I get to be involved in so many of the conversations that often happen, and because I have this relationship both with Gina and Tami they’re kind enough to allow me into their process a bit, even as they’re talking about how they’re planning to shoot and what they’re planning to shoot. That helps inform me as to the material that will be coming through. I like to have these conversations before before they’re about to shoot them, not from a technical standpoint, but from a story standpoint, a character standpoint, and what we need to get from this particular scene.
You have a short window in this pilot to establish the bond between mother and son before this horrible tragedy. How did you plan on approaching that?
Prince-Bythewood: Creator Marissa Jo Cerar didn’t want to start with his death. That was very important to her. So, it was about getting to know this boy before his tragic death and tragic murder. It starts with casting. We were so blessed to get Adrienne, who played Mamie and then Cedric Joe, who, who played young Emmett, and early on just putting those two together in natural situations of a mother and son to build an organic relationship between the two. I had them come together and cook, just to hang with each other. I had her teach him how to sing because he has that scene where he sings. So, all these things started to bond them naturally and organically. And then it was about how we want to capture them. I feel like we start their bond in that very first opening scene where Mamie is pregnant, and about to have a baby and a difficult birth. Tami and I wanted to stay on her face, and barely see the activities going on around her. It was about staying focused on this woman who’s fighting for her child and scared to death. Then it was about letting Teri get that footage, who knew exactly what we were going for. We felt it was more powerful for an audience to stay on her and see how much this woman was willing to fight for her child.
Teri, talk about the cut or rather letting that scene breathe.
Shropshire: Given that this is women of the movement, you have to understand what sparked this movement. A pastor was talking about what just happened in Buffalo. One of the things that he said was, ‘Change always happens from pain that happens from trauma.’ In some ways, the hospital room is Mamie Till-Mobley fighting for her life and his life. I feel that in that room, you wanted to hold on to everything that she was feeling, that isolation. We talked a lot about the nurse and what that voice would be and, and how much we would show her and not show her. So, we created this bubble.
For Emmett and Mamie, they were a team. She raised him so protectively until she let him go. It was important to show how she was always fighting for him, until she let him have that certain degree of freedom. It was all-important to show that in the way we work the scenes, both that sense of connection between them and how they lived within their bubble. You want to be able to keep the audience understanding that this isn’t about the victimization of him. This is about our brothers and mothers and their relationship with their sons.
Prince-Bythewood: Tami, I would love you to talk about where the relationship becomes severed, where she gives him this freedom, in terms of the difference between Chicago and Mississippi?
Reiker: In Chicago, especially in their apartment, it’s warm, cozy, vibrant and colorful. When the transition happens, slowly on the train ride until he’s in Mississippi, we’re in a much cooler color palette and it becomes more desaturated.
How did you want to show the kidnapping?
Prince-Bythewood: It was an incredible challenge and scary as well, because this is something that really happened. How do we put an audience at that moment in Emmett’s absolute fear, confusion and horror, how he felt and how his uncle felt? We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to stay in real time. Make it one shot and just take us through. There are so many elements to that whole sequence. It was hard for all of them the two men who kidnapped him. We did it all in one shot, and Tami is so intuitive she feels the scene as it’s happening. We wanted to stay as true as possible to the moment and not try and fill it with a bunch of camera tricks. We wanted you to feel what that kid must have felt like at that moment.
Tami, how did you light that?
Reiker: Gina pushed me to commit to just a flashlight because they had no lights, the light bulb was out and it was dark. So, we’re just following that flashlight as we move through space. We were all there in that little space. It was just me and the assistant hiding in the corner waiting for the knock on the door, and we played it out.
Teri, how did you cut the scene?
Shropshire: It was always about honoring the intention. Ultimately, I always think about the weight that most must have had on that night, when essentially, you’re losing a child to save a family. There’s a moment when Emmett is putting on his shoes, and he looks to Moat, that’s the one for me, that I wanted to honor.
This is the last time we’re seeing this. We talked about once Emmett left, would we see the car drive off? Or hear it? There’s just something about the sound of that truck, and you see his head going down. It was a tough scene. So much of it is, we’re telling the story of someone who we don’t really get to hear his voice about what happened. And so how do you convey that?
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