Q&A: Columbia alum Marissa Jo Cerar on writing for ABC series ‘Women of the Movement’

By Isaiah Colbert, Staff Reporter

Marissa Jo Cerar, a 2002 Columbia film and video alum and writer for the series “Women of the Movement,” said its characters are portrayed as human beings who are trying to do their best, rather than as caricatures in a crime show. Courtesy/Marissa Jo Cerar

Before the rise of streaming services, Marissa Jo Cerar, then a broke college student, would look for character-driven writing in the small budget movies she saw three times a week.

While today’s movies focus on reboots and remakes of interesting material, television is often where writers creatively explore stories centered around characters, which is what Cerar, a 2002 Columbia film and video alum, tends to do.

Cerar is the writer of ABC’s upcoming “Women of the Movement,” a six-episode limited series following Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, and her journey seeking justice for her son. The series is set to premier in 2021, according to Deadline, and is produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Aaron Kaplan.

Cerar spoke with the Chronicle about her experience writing the series and what she hopes viewers will take away from it.

THE CHRONICLE: How is “Women of the Movement” significant to you as a writer and as a Black woman?

CERAR: It means the world to me. It’s the only reason why I do any project at this point in my career. It’s about what it is saying [and] how I can bring myself to the project being a Black woman and a mom. I really wanted it to be character forward and humanity forward. I wanted to focus on Emmett and Mamie, the human beings, rather than the victim and martyr, or icon.

Do you have an added pressure in writing for a series produced by industry giants like Jay-Z, Will Smith and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood?

I feel a lot of pressure, but not because of any of that. I really just feel pressured because the story means a lot to a lot of people. I want it to be good, moving and open up hearts [and] minds.

How did you approach writing the trauma that comes from the murder of Emmett Till while also giving authenticity to the event?

What I can say without spoiling anything about the show is that there’s hope and there’s levity in how I approach telling the story. It’s not just about trauma, it’s a call to action. It’s a story about a boy coming of age. It’s a story about a mother going from [being] a regular person to a public figure. It’s not just about the crime. I don’t look at this as a true crime show, I look at this as a character study.

The perspectives of Black women are often overlooked in the depictions of the civil rights movement. How will “Women of the Movement” focus on women who fought for justice when in previous depictions they are not brought to the forefront?

[“Women of the Movement” is] telling the story of how this horrible tragedy turned this mother, this regular person, into an activist—an accidental activist, essentially. And it’s all about her—it’s her story. The goal of our story goes beyond season 1 and it’s [meant] to tell the stories of the women who were part of the movement, and maybe people weren’t privy to their involvement or even their existence.

With the series set to premier in 2021how do you hope the series will speak to Americans in a moment where racial and civil unrest is at an all-time high?

I really hope that when people watch it, they will realize there’s no such thing as someone else’s son or someone else’s daughter—we all belong to each other. I hope that it’ll just make Americans see the humanity [in] everyone. Whether they look like you, pray like you, love like you, vote like you—we all have a shared humanity. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll be.