Turner shines as Mamie when given the opportunity, but though the series is presumably about her, there are significant stretches where she has little to work with; many of her scenes have to accomplish so much narratively that they inevitably become dramatically void. Especially once the legal drama takes over—most of the back half of the series up until the final episode—the vast majority of Mamie’s screen time is devoted to speeches and discussions of strategy that leave little space for character. Throughout this time, visions of Emmett quietly watching over her prove to be a crutch for her emotional turmoil. Mamie’s personal journey becoming secondary for a significant chunk of the series is particularly evidenced by how Mamie’s mother Alma (Tonya Pinkins) and supportive boyfriend, Gene Mobley (Ray Fisher), also more or less disappear from the narrative for this period, reappearing midway through the final episode to quickly wrap up arcs that had been left by the wayside several episodes earlier.
Considering the caliber of the directing talent involved, including Gina Prince-Bythewood and Julie Dash, the look of the series is rather nondescript. But this sparsity does make more pointed visual choices stand out, like when Carolyn Bryant (Julia McDermott), the white woman who accused Emmett of whistling at her, leading to his murder at the hands of her husband and brother-in-law, takes the stand. Her weaponized white tears are contrasted to Mamie’s, silent and ignored, through alternating close-ups of the two women. (This sequence also stands out because early episodes in particular seem weirdly allergic to close-ups, even in deeply emotional moments.)
The shortcomings of “Women of the Movement” trace back to the issue of focus, a flaw that feels connected to the show’s edutainment aims, and an issue rather endemic to the docudramas as a whole. The genre is plagued by a strange respectability politics of a sort, a desire to maintain a veneer of impartiality and veracity that has somewhere along the line been (in my opinion, falsely) tied to a particular sense of distance, minimal aesthetics, and dry dialogue crammed with exposition. It’s like watching a textbook. It’s a strange conundrum, as it’s the very moments that wouldn’t be in a textbook that hit the hardest in this series, like when the whirlwind of trauma and the legal proceedings calms down and Mamie sobs over a broken washing machine. There are just enough of these moments scattered throughout the series to drive home what a shame it is that there aren’t more of them.