Women of the Movement executive producer and showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar.
Adrienne Warren in Woment of the Movement.
Ray Fisher and Adrienne Warren in Women of the Movement.
It’s not a coincidence. Marissa Jo Cerar has 14 TV episodic writing credits to her name and each one has focused on a character-driven social issue loosely inspired by her personal experience. “It’s sort of my secret sauce,” she says. “I have a very unique world view, and this contributes to the types of stories that I tell and the way I tell them.”
That’s why she was so keen on creating the six-episode limited series Women of the Movement (premiering January 6 on ABC). The powerful and poignant drama — co-produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith — focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley, a soft-spoken Chicago woman who devoted her life to advocacy and justice for her teen son, Emmett Till, in the aftermath of his murder in the Jim Crow South in 1955. “I knew it had to be told from her point of view,” says Cerar, also the executive producer and showrunner. “I was so mesmerized by her strength and the fact that she was able to stand alone on this stage. I can’t fathom it.”
Cerar, who goes by “MJ,” has her own remarkable biography: She’s one of eight adopted kids and grew up the only Black person in her rural, 1600-person town of Athens, Illinois. Feeling lonely and isolated, she started writing as a way of inserting herself in stories. “I’d imagine meeting other people and going to new places beyond these cornfields,” she says. Her parents, she adds, nurtured her love of reading and writing and sensed early on that she was destined to travel beyond the city limits.
But they probably didn’t anticipate a hot Hollywood career. After graduating from Columbia College Chicago, she moved to Burbank to make a go of it. She ultimately landed her first staff job in 2013 as a writer on The Fosters, the Freeform series that chronicled a blended home of foster and adopted children. “I used a lot of my life in the writers’ room,” she says. She went on to work on Shots Fired, 13 Reasons Why and, in 2019, became a supervising producer on The Handmaid’s Tale. Making her way up the production chain, “I learned everything from casting to pitching to dealing with actors to how to give notes to a writer and not give notes.”
Under her new deal with Kapital Entertainment, Cerar will continue to develop, write and produce projects through her company Two Drifters. She’s in the early stages of adapting a series for Hulu based on the novel Black Cake, which she describes as “a family drama wrapped in a murder mystery that takes place all over the world in multiple timelines.” She also hopes for another chapter of Women of the Movement: “There are so many women to explore that I hope we do 20 seasons.”
And just maybe, she’ll soon write something especially close to her heart. “I do want to tell my own story,” she says. “But I’m still evolving!”