The Atlanta Child Murders (TV Mini Series 1985) Poster

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Dusturbances in Atlanta.
rmax30482313 February 2016
In the 1980s black children began disappearing from the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, and it took the authorities quite a while to catch on. The press wasn't paying much attention because the murder of a visitor of high social standing was dominating the news. But because of the prodding by police detective Morgan Freeman and the pro bono investigations of a former detective Michael Sheen, the polaroid image of a serious serial killer slowly emerges from the emulsion. They got him, but not before many more victims.

It would have been easy to turn this into a politically correct story of indifferent white mayors and cops versus innocent, quietly suffering black families. That's what I expected, since this was written by Abby Mann, who also wrote "Judgment at Nuremburg," in which every single German was guilty of being complicit in the Nazi genocidal program. There was simple good, and then there was simple evil. He accepted his Academy Award "in the name of all intellectuals everywhere." For whatever reason -- perhaps because Atlanta was run largely by African-Americans -- Mann provides a much more balanced film here. It's a surprisingly intelligent script. James Earl Jones, who in real life radiates good will, is the stubborn mayor who refuses to address the problem with all the city's resources. The police treat the early disappearances as examples of bad parenting in dysfunctional families, forcing the mothers to take lie detector tests and otherwise humiliating them.

The antagonists themselves are now black "from top to bottom." Some of the white guys are actually on the side of the angels, while Atlanta's black community is quick to blame whites for trying to kill off blacks. The African-Americans are not only mistaken but their anger seems to be only a recent explosion of their underlying hatred of whites. "Hate is the only reality," shouts one protester, demonstrating the point. Acknowleding black racism in a made-for-TV movie is unusual enough to warrant the observation that we're all imperfect.

Atlanta's black children are understandably terrified. They're just old enough to understand the threat. And their denials and fantasies are sadly uninformed. One boasts that the killer will never get him because he's watched so many Bruce Lee movies and has learned Dai Gwan Do.

After a year and a half and a few dozen bodies, the bridges of Atlanta have been staked out by police. One cop hears a splash and alerts the others. The man driving slowly off the bridge is Wayne Williams, a presentable young black man who wears aviator glasses. He's a perfect target and the authorities are desperate, yet no one saw him stop his car, drag a bundle to the rail, and drop it into the Chatahootchie River, nor does an immediate search turn up a body. Williams is picked up and questioned by the police. He fails a polygraph test and his lawn and home become the center of a paroxysm of media attention. The press is savaged but Williams himself begins to do things that are weird. He calls a "press conference" in which he just hands out papers of his mostly faked resumé. He brags about having outwitted his police tail.

When he's arrested, he's defended by Jason Robards, Jr.. The prosecution is led by the grim Rip Torn, aided by Andy Robinson, a human teratoma, the serial killer from "Dirty Harry." The movie clearly takes Williams' side. In a script by Abby Mann there must be outrage against injustice. There must be impassioned speeches. Any intellectual will tell you that.

I won't go through the trial itself, which is presented in the usual Perry Mason fashion: the prosecution spends a moment presenting evidence; the defense by the unimpeachable Jason Robards, Jr., spends twice that time tearing it apart. It's easy to cast doubt on scientific evidence because science is based on probability, never certainty. That rules out "yes" and "no." If you ask a scientist to say he's absolutely certain of something, he must answer no. Will the sun rise tomorrow? The only correct answer is "probably." Then again every study has limitations. You say the DNA at the crime scene matches that of the suspect. Did you test the DNA of everyone on earth? No? Then you can't be sure, can you? Of course eyewitness testimony is more appealing but even more likely to be suspect, as social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated.

Morgan Freeman's juiced up detective is a triumph. He's an exceptional actor who has always elevated whatever film he's appeared in, through villainous and heroic roles. Sheen is casual and effective. Some of the supporting cast stand out as well, including Lynne Moody as a bereaved and angry single parent, while others out-herod Herod. CCH Pounder is memorable too. And Ruby Dee, my co-star, is always reliable. Ernest Harden Jr. as a street smart witness called "Cool Breeze" is side splitting.

The media are shown as ruthless agents of tabloid journalism. That's okay, but Mann has the message spelled out by a shouting parent, while it's already been amply displayed on screen. The script doesn't always give the viewer much credit for sensitivity. The camera lingers on a hysterically sobbing mother. If anyone wants to see how such grief can be handled differently, watch Fritz Lang's "M", a German movie about a child murder, in which mothers grieve mostly offscreen. Lang figured that we already KNOW they're mourning.

John Erman has exercised care in his direction. Excellent staging and camera placement, without directorial excess, except for one or two dysrhythmic shots. The editing is noticeably good too; some of the cuts come at precisely the right unexpected instant.
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Good Movie, not quite an accurate portrayal of Atlanta political establishment
ericcody10 May 2005
The Atlanta Child Murders, a 1985 CBS mini series of the week is a good movie, but not an accurate portrayal of the political establishment of this still growing city. Former Mayor Andrew Young tried to ban this movie from airing the city of Atlanta and the surrounding counties. I am a resident of Decatur, GA 10 miles outside of Atlanta. I was a seven year old boy when the first of 27 bodies of young Black teenage boys and two Black girls were found in 1979.

As of this writing Dekalb County Police Chief Graham just five days ago announced that he has reopened the cases of five murders of Black teenage boys that was on the original list of the murdered children. Chief Graham believes Wayne Williams could not have committed these murders. The Atlanta Child Murders screenplay was written by Abby Mann. Mann was a strong supporter along with writer James Baldwin and Civil Rights attorney William Kunstler of Wayne Williams innocence.

The Atlanta Child Murders film captures masterfully the fear and outrage that gripped the city (Atlanta) that eventually hosted the 1996 Olympics Summer Games. Mann attempted not to offend the politicians such as Former Governor Busby and Former Mayor Maynard Jackson whom were both in office at the time of the child murders and whom had the most to lose politically if these murders was not quickly solved. In my opinion Wayne Williams did not commit all of these murders. He would have had to been Superman to get around the city to commit all of these murders in the time frame the authorities was finding bodies. Wayne Williams was only convicted of killing two men who was considered the last victims of the list.

I give this movie ***stars. Good, but not excellent. This movie is not on DVD.
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Mistakes were made but this movie blatantly misrepresents facts. WW is guilty.
bshawstrell16 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Please correct me if I'm wrong here but man, they really misrepresented the climactic court scene in this movie, from everything that Ive read about the case, that's pretty unforgivable imo. The movie leads up to the moment in court where WW loses his cool, drops the whole 'shy, feeble, victim act' and reveals his true self-full of rage and vengeance, someone who, yeah, in this state, not only had the temperament to commit violence, but absolutely could throw a grown man over a tall guard rail. Also we're told he revealed his authentic self here bc his attorney (who was doing amazingly up-to-this-point) picked this critical point to suddenly turn into a rookie litigator? BUZZZZZZ!!! WRONG. SORRY! Didn't happen like that. From every account I have read, His attorney advised him, like any fractionally competent litigator would, TO NOT TESTIFY. They do that for THE EXACT REASON THAT HAPPENS HERE. Best case scenario, your behavior and testimony reaffirms the jurors' belief that you are innocent. Worst case scenario: You mess up, the prosecution makes you crack, and you reveal to the jury you're someone prone to violent fits of rage. His fate was sealed there. And from what Ive read from the FBI reports, not newspaper reports, WW really did have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde moment in that court room. Apparently it wasn't just him sternly objecting to leading questions. Apparently, when pressed about his failures and inadequacies he stood up and rather threatening and violently castigated the prosecution and proclaimed "You wanted to see the real Wayne Williams, WHERE HE IS! ((paraphrased)) IMO it's pretty clear when you know all the facts that he's, at least guilty of some of those murders. And not a small number either. He's a classic malignant narcissist-thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. Pretty poetic, if you ask me, that in the end, it's his stupid, selfish decision to take the stand that sinks him. *I'd like to add a note that the police, DA,ution, and Mayor's office didn't do themselves any favors in the end by employing all those dirty tricks they felt they needed to win. The evidence wasn't perfect, but there was enough to convict. And there were legitimate, cross referenced witness accounts and testimonies that didn't make it into the movie. There were kids who told the police WW made threats to them and pretended like he was someone who could lock them up if they didn't stop misbehaving. There were a couple other credible witnesses either glanced over or not mentioned. They also never mentioned his past arrest for impersonating an officer and how that's a classic ruse to entrap kids. Also, there actually was one sketch that apparently looked a lot like WW, just without glasses, but that was misrepresented for some reason. He also backed himself into a lot of corners where he had absolutely no reasonable explanations and changed his story and flat out lied throughout apprehension, interrogation, and the trial and that was basically all ignored. The man is guilty. They tested DNA in like 2010 found on one of the boys and it matched WW to like, a 98 percentile degree. None of the fiber evidence has been rebuked. He still has no rational explanation for why he was on the bridge that day or why he stopped to get out of the car. All of behavioral and psychological markers that FBI experts use to categorize and identify serial killers pretty much fit WW to a T. Hes a narcissist. He's a loner. He, at best, has a complicated sexual history. He was raised by extremely overprotective, overbearing parents-an indicator specifically of child serial killers. His murders fit the murder profile of someone who lives at home and doesn't have the privacy or luxury of time to spend with his victims; So in order to keep killing but not get caught his murders are quick and clean. No mess for his parents to stumble across and no murder weapon to identify. I could go on, including his job history and how that indicates guilt, but I'll spare you. He did it. I understand the parents pov too, though. The prosecution cast their precious children as poor, unsophisticated hoodlums because that's almost certainly how WW saw them bc they reminded him of the kids in his neighborhood who made fun of him and were a constant reminder of his failures, especially as a radio DJ and how that was a large reason his family was forced to live in a poorer neighborhood. And WW, being a textbook narcissist, could not stand being ridiculed and how powerless that made him feel. With these sickos, it's all about power, manipulation, and control. And in the end, the only time IN HIS LIFE where he felt completely powerful and in control, was when he was killing those kids. CASE CLOSED.
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So, he's INNOCENT?
SanFernandoCurt6 December 2004
When the "Atlanta Child Murders" first aired in the mid-'80s, it didn't raise too many eyebrows - even though Abby Mann's script intimates in the concluding minutes of the miniseries that convicted culprit Wayne Williams may NOT be the murderer of dozens of young men and boys in a horrifying crime spree that held Georgia's biggest city spellbound with fear three decades ago. Given Mann's film-making track record - "Judgment at Nuremberg," "King," etc. - nobody was going to accuse him of being a conservative. In fact, most of his work has always seemed philosophically bound by a boilerplate leftism and a near-obsession with black/white race relations in America. It wasn't too much of a surprise that he would spring his unique - and frankly bizarre - theory on network television. For Mann, Williams was the victim of incompetent police work, corrupt city government and that old devil, racism. OK. Sure.

But now, it's 20 years later. Wayne Williams is still in prison. While the serial killings of Atlanta's young have not continued (in fact, they stopped with Williams' arrest in 1981), Williams still maintains his innocence. So, where's Abby? Shouldn't he be working for William's freedom? Or, if he's changed his mind, repudiating his own theory? I mean: We're stuck with a 1985-vintage "J'accuse" that seems to have been conveniently forgotten by its own creator. Where's Abby? Is he sitting up in Beverly Hills with the rest of the Hollywood Chardonnay proletariat, reading the Daily Worker and ordering the Third World servants around?

If Wayne Williams is innocent, shouldn't SOMEONE be trying to free this poor victim-of-the-system from prison? And if, indeed, he's guilty, why did Abby Mann ever say he was innocent? Real mystery, huh?
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As Good As TV Movies Get
Etherdave13 September 2007
Excellent, gripping Made-For-TV story of the abductions and murders of African-American children, adolescents, and adults in Atlanta in the early 80's, and the sensational trial of the one man brought to justice for these crimes. The murders and trial polarized the communities of Atlanta and its environs, and the TV Movie re-creates this stunningly well in its deliberately ambiguous portrayal of suspect Wayne Williams, the evidence against him, and the issues of presenting a capital case based almost solely on circumstantial evidence. Just as the case inspires controversy up to this day, so does this movie.

Calvin Levels has Wayne Williams down pat in this production - alternately charming, charismatic, strange, and menacing - and creates a web of confused desires and motives that deliberately leaves audiences guessing - what REALLY happened on that bridge? Co-stars Morgan Freeman, Jason Robards, Rip Torn and Gloria Foster provide equally interesting performances throughout. While some viewers, especially those living in the Atlanta communities affected by these events, may be dismayed or even angered by the portrayal of the law-enforcement authorities attempting to make sense of this case, their issue is more with the deliberate manner in which no real sides are taken by the producers of this film. If in more recent decades the historic portrayal of White apathy towards crimes committed on Blacks is universally deemed insulting or unacceptable, then perhaps some progress has been made after all.
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The Atlanta Child Murders
goddessnoir19 February 2006
I saw this movie as a young girl in the mid eighties and needless to say, especially being a young black child, it scared me. I just wanted to comment on what the previous commenter said. Though I am in no way claiming Wayne Williams is innocent, the murders and disappearances didn't stop with Williams' conviction as he stated, they actually continued until early '83 sparking talk that he may not have actually been the killer.

The evidence used to convict him was flimsy at best and there were actually over 100 children and young adults declared missing and or found dead. Williams was described as a "very weird" individual and did he commit these murders? Who knows but, the majority of evidence did not point towards him, there were over 100 children and young adults killed about 30 of them AFTER he was in jail.
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Dark Mystery Thriller
kevinkishin16 June 2020
This miniseries is a good start for anyone interested in the "Atlanta Child Murders", for me it shows all sides of the equation Community Support, Police infighting, Racial tension across the board, this film is a spring board for the mind.
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Waye Williams was a patsy
robertgriffin3528 December 2006
I remember watching this movie, I was about 14 years old living in California at the time, and it still scared the hell out of me. Even to this day I don't know if I would or could watch it again due to that fact. Most people think that the killings stopped when Wayne was put behind bars but they didn't. The FBI, even the President of the United States knew that a race war could blow up in downtown Atlanta if the public knew what the FBI knew of certain members of the KKK's involvement. The FBI have phone taps of certain members of the KKK, one person more then any other knew a lot of those kids that had been killed, even telling an FBI informant that he was going to kill one of them. Guess what that kid ended up being killed.

Now im not saying that Wayne is innocent of any of the killings, but things don't make since. A serial killer hardly ever changes his course. Ted Bundy loved brunettes with parts down the middle of their hair, Wayne Gacy loved white men who were gay. The Green River killer killed street walkers. Are we to believe that Wayne Williams went from killing little kids to full grown adults??? Are we to believe that Wayne Williams killed these adults by himself, strangled them even though some were bigger and stronger then he was and then toss them into a river.

No murder weapon was ever found, stories have been changed to fit Wayne Williams must of been the culprit.

Wayne Williams have recently tried to get DNA testing, which I do not know has been passed or denied, but why would it be denied? That one person the FBI had hard feelings about stated he had a Siberian Husky, Wanye Williams had a Shepard. EArly stories of some of the killings stated that Husky hair had been found, Later they to changed to Shepard hairs in changing of stories.

5 of the kids that were found were found in a park where this person and his brother visited on a regular basis.

Also most serial killers keep trophies, nothing like this was ever found at any spot where Wayne Williams lived or worked at? People say he hated black youths, but then the same people say he loved to seduce black teens.

I don't think we will ever know what happened in Atlanta, so many witness have changed stories, people have died, Aids probably killed a lot of witness, or people close to the case. The victims were raped, and Aids being pretty much a fast death sentence at that time could of probably killed the killer(s) as well.

I for one do not thing Wayne Williams was given a fair trial. The trial was rushed, his lawyers were buried with a mountain of evidence to sort thru in such a limited time. Witness changed their stories in mid trial. Williams' layweres were not allowed certain evidence that would help to release him.
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A tragedy that should never be forgotten.
mark.waltz25 November 2021
Warning: Spoilers
This two part TV drama which entered the public consciousness over 40 years ago is an officially unsolved case but evidence points to another direction even if the case remains a mystery. It took four years after the trial for it to be dramatized with a carefully written teleplay by the legendary Abby Mann ("Judgment at Nuremberg") and focusing on the characters played by James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, working together to solve the case, having different ideas along the way which causes conflict.

The first part focuses on the body count of the unfortunate victims and the buildup of anger and grief in the community, particularly from the perspective of the families, some ruthlessly and cruelly badgered by the press. There's also how the case impacts city government with paranoia that the killer could actually be a member of the police force and how the public demands answers that nobody can give. By the time the trial begins in part two (which alludes to the fact that he may be gay), you are gripped, because the themes of the film vary from poignant social drama to the character study of a complex possible killer to the political turmoil it causes. But more than anything, it's a tragedy because of the many lives taken.

Performances by Jones, Freeman, Martin Sheen, Jason Robards (as the defense attorney), Rip Torn (prosecuting attorney) and especially Calvin Levels as suspect Wayne Williams, presented here as a charming sociopath, are excellent, and the ensemble of minor players including some very famous names, obviously wanting to be in the film for personal reasons, not only professional. Ruby Dee, as Wayne's mother, is particularly touching.

So the question regarding Williams becomes is he a clever liar, victim of a split personality as one of the witnesses suggests (which could indicate why he denies being homosexual, possibly not remembering certain experiences and freaking out when he finds himself in that situation), or the victim of a bigger conspiracy? Evidence is presented here that certainly makes him look guilty, the script all so cleverly indicates that some of that evidence could have been fabricated. That's the power of a brilliant script that makes you think, questioning our justice system yet remembering the poor kids whose lives ended before they had a chance to begin. Try not to have tears when Bruce Scott sing the moving anthem "On the Nickel" over the credits of both parts and briefly at the end.
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The Atlanta Child Murders
Coxer999 June 1999
Robards and Torn are the best part of this long crime drama that you must struggle to stay with. The plot gets confusing and the already mentioned stars give the film its only stand out performances
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Partly interesting, partly boo hoo poor us victim mentality
gregliban27 March 2019
Partly interesting, partly boo hoo poor us victim mentality
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Ok movie- It focused too much on the writer's belief in Williams' innocence and not enough on the true child murder victims
chatterboxchronicles22 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I had hoped to see a movie more about the genuine victims and their families. Instead, most of the movie was about the trial where Abby Mann (the writer), clearly thought Wayne Williams was innocent.

While the case wasn't a slam dunk, there was plenty of fiber evidence linking Williams and as of recently, some actual DNA evidence.

That said, the movie did cover most of the case and Morgan Freeman's acting helped to salvage it.
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