“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” a moving family film

This week marked the 50th anniversary remembrance of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. — a notorious, racially motivated crime that killed four little girls and helped gain support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That event marks a pivotal scene in the Hallmark Channel original movie The Watsons Go to Birmingham, premiering Sept. 20 at 8pm ET. The film, based on the Newbery Honor-winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis, also touches on other key civil rights moments from 1963 that we are commemorating this year, including the Birmingham marches and the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham.

These historic events serve as the backdrop for the Watson family’s visit to Birmingham in the summer of 1963. An African-American family, the Watsons live in Flint, Mich., but mother Wilona (Anika Noni Rose), missing her roots, is interested in traveling back South to visit her mother (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Wilona and Daniel (Wood Harris), the Watson patriarch, also agree that spending a summer with no-nonsense Grandma Sands might do some good for their eldest son Byron (Harrison Knight), who is bordering on juvenile delinquency. The Watsons have two other children — sweet-natured daughter Joetta (Skai Jackson), and youngest son Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), from whose point of view The Watsons Go to Birmingham is told, both through his 11-year-old voice, and through the voice of an older man looking back with not only nostalgia, but wisdom at what the life-changing events of that summer taught him.

Kenny is heavily into reading, and is a very thoughtful, sensitive boy (early in the film he gives a powerful reading of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” to his class), so the new world his family encounters in Birmingham — where Jim Crow laws rule the land — seems to affect him the hardest, filling him with confusion, and especially fear. His first taste of the “way things are done down here in Birmingham” is when he and Byron innocently enter the front door of a diner and sit down at the counter to order hot dogs, much to the outrage of the white patrons and servers, who expect black customers to understand that they “don’t serve your kind.” Grandma Sands’ live-in friend, Mr. Robert (David Alan Grier), later takes the kids to a showing of To Kill a Mockingbird, where they are forced to go in through, to Kenny’s shock, an entrance marked “Colored Only.” Kenny and Byron meet some cousins of theirs who were involved in earlier marches in Birmingham, and that seems to spark a sense of maturity and responsibility in Byron, who takes more of a father figure role toward Kenny as the summer in Birmingham progresses, even as the summer comes to a shocking end with the church bombing.

Through these incidents happening right before them, along with breaking news flashes on TV and radio about events occurring elsewhere, the Watsons are regularly reminded of the changing American landscape, and particularly of the dangers that they may face on their trip (they plan ahead so as not to end up having to drive at night in the South), and these reminders sometimes interrupt their familial closeness and fun, and puts them on edge for a time, but never stops their love. The trip ends up bringing them even closer together, and there are plenty of touching, and funny, family moments that display the strength of the family, moments that will be recognizable to families everywhere, especially if they have ever taken a long car ride together (siblings fighting in the back seat, arguments over what song to play on the radio — or, in the case of the Watsons’ 1948 Plymouth Brown Bomber, a pretty odd in-car record player that I had no idea ever existed).

With those family moments, and the historic events that offer good opportunities for discussion among viewers and their own families (the film, while effectively getting across the world of Jim Crow laws without being too detailed about the extreme violence that occurred at the time, is appropriate family viewing), The Watsons Go to Birmingham is enjoyable and educational, with terrific, moving performances, and seems a little deeper than your average Hallmark movie while still holding the same values as the network’s other offerings. It works as a “family vacation” movie, a coming-of-age story, and also serves as a fine way of bringing to life some of the notable events we have been commemorating this year, and what they mean to so many.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham premieres on Hallmark Channel Sept. 20 at 8pm ET.


The Watsons Go to Birmingham: © 2013 Crown Media, Inc. Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert