ABC had such low expectations for a 1977 project that it decided to run all eight episodes on consecutive nights to get it out of the way.
Much to its surprise, "Roots" became one of the most-watched TV shows of all time.
You can't help but think about that miniseries while watching "Women of the Movement," which premiered Thursday on ABC. Despite the subject matter — how the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till influenced the civil rights movement — "Movement" is not nearly as memorable as the small-screen adaptation of Alex Haley's bestselling novel, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." But at the least network TV is giving it a shot.
"Roots" made the miniseries a TV staple, but most of the hits that followed, like "Winds of War," "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," were more interested in jamming big stars into soap operas than awakening a social consciousness. Only 1978's "Holocaust" matched "Roots" in its ambition.
ABC deserves credit, then, for turning over three nights of prime time to "Movement" as well as its companion piece, "Let the World See," produced by the network's news department.
Both these new projects look at the tragedy through the eyes of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, played in "Movement" by Tony winner Adrienne Warren.
In the first episode, we get a sense of her tight relationship with her only son, portrayed by Cedric Joe, who is eager to travel from his home in Chicago to Mississippi where he can fish and get a better look at the stars.
But a cheeky exchange with a white store clerk in the Jim Crow South changes everything. His subsequent murder — and mom's decision to have an open casket so everyone could see how badly they disfigured Emmett — shook the world.
The producers, which include Will Smith and Jay-Z, do a nice job of laying out the entire story, including the trial of the suspects.
Too often stories like these are told through the eyes of "white saviors." Think "Mississippi Burning" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Movement" could have easily gone the same route by giving the majority of screen time to the dogged district attorney (Gil Bellows) or one of the white reporters determined to get to the truth. This time around, these are satellite characters. The focus is squarely on Till-Mobely as well as key civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Ruby Hurley and Roy Wilkins.
The production also avoids casting celebrities who might have been a distraction. The one exception: Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, who is terrific as the smug lawyer defending the accused.
If only "Movement" didn't rely so much on sappy dialogue. Too many times the characters break into monologues that sound like sermons.
"I spent my whole life looking down, looking up only to talk to God," says Emmett's great-uncle, played by Glynn Turman. "But I'm thinking the sky is too beautiful not to look up."
It's a poetic reading from an outstanding actor — and totally unrealistic.
For a more grounded approach, stick around for the docu-series, which airs after each two-hour episode of "Movement." The testimonials from Till's descendants are more powerful than any preaching in the miniseries. The moment when academic Michael Eric Dyson visits the bridge where racists tossed Emmett's body into the river is more moving than any bit of scripted TV you'll see this year.