This week marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church by Klu Klux Klan that left four young girls dead. The Hallmark Channel is honoring this tragic, and historic, event with their original TV movie, The Watsons Go To Birmingham.
The TV movie is based on the novel Christopher Paul Curtis, which earned him both the 1996 Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Award. The story, based in 1963, is about the Watsons, an African American family living in Flint, Michigan who take a summer vacation to Birmingham (Mrs. Watson’s hometown). The Watsons have three children: Byron (a trouble-maker of the 15-year-old), Joetta (an angelic 8-year-old) and Kenny (a bookish 11-year-old), who serves as the story’s narrator.
As in the book, the movie nicely balances a family drama with the larger historical story, although the adaptation doesn’t fully achieve the novel’s emotional depth or character development (understandable since it condenses the book into not-even a 90-minute film) so young fans of the book may come away a little disappointed.
Still, there is much to recommend with the Hallmark adaptation. The movie offers a wonderfully warm portrait of a family who loves one another although they may fuss and fight some. The actors make it feel like this is a real family with Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose (as the mother) and The Wire’s Wood Harris (as the dad), in particular, showing a fine chemistry together. The child actors are fine too (Disney Channel fans will recognize Skai Jackson as Joette) although their characters are a little thinly drawn and the nerdish Kenny brings to mind the old sitcom character Urkel.
This Watsons’ family story, however, serves as an excellent way to introduce the larger social/historical story about segregation and the Civil Rights movement. It provides a good vehicle for elementary school age kids to learn more about this turbulent time in American history. The film makes strong use of archival footage, as well as black & white recreations, to ground the story in the hard realities of life in the South at that time and to offer a glimpse of why the Civil Rights movement arose. Director Kenny Leon also does a good job (particularly without the benefit of a big Hollywood budget) with the final act’s big dramatic sequence (which I won’t give away).
This family story succeeds in being a film that families can watch and enjoy together while learning a little more about what America was like in the early Sixties at the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Older kids (and adults) who want to know more about what took place at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, might want to check out the Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls, which Spike Lee made in 1997.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.