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It’s the summer of 1963, and the Watsons — an African-American family from Flint, Michigan — seek a change of pace, traveling south to visit family in Birmingham, Alabama, which was at that time the belly of the beast. The Hallmark Channel has adapted their road trip and experience from Christopher Paul Curtis‘ 1996 historical work The Watsons Go to Birmingham (a Newbery Medal winner), which follows the fictional Watsons as they witness first-hand one of the most defining events of the early Civil Rights movement: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Middle child Kenny’s (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) narration of that fateful summer is at times reminiscent of The Wonder Years. He’s a nerd often bullied for liking to read, and is bookended in the family by a troubled older brother, Byron (Harrison Knight), and an angelic younger sister, Joetta (Skai Jackson). Their parents, Wilona (Anika Noni Rose) and Daniel (Wood Harris), are stern but loving. For most of the TV movie, things are in full Leave It to Beaver mode, with its clean-cut period costumes, family bonding, good manners and jolly misadventures. Even Wilona’s supposed disciplinarian mother (LaTanya Richardson), who the family stays with in Birmingham, is never seen without a smile and a desire to hug.
The TV movie feels geared towards younger audiences, even going so far as to scrub all of the PG language from Curtis’ original novel. There’s not a great deal of plotting (at one point the movie deepens its educational bend and becomes a series of newsreels and powerful archival footage), but it is a way to start conversations with a younger generation about important events in a way that feels accessible. In others ways, the story doesn’t seem to go far enough.
While in Flint, the family appears to have never met a racist or had to even think about racial issues. At that time in Detroit, white flight had been going on for over a decade, and those tensions led to a race riot in 1967. It isn’t until the family starts heading to the south that these issues suddenly begin to take shape. Though the Watsons do come up against the institution of segregation, there’s a lot of apologizing from whites (the production also unfortunately leans heavily on southern stereotypes for all races).
Further, the role of civil rights in the movie feels too ancillary at times. Eldest son Byron starts the story off as a bully, and gradually begins to turn things around during the Watsons’ Birmingham stay. But is it the influence of the civil rights movement that catches his interest and makes him want to stand up for what’s right, or was it just that he was removed from his bad seed friends in Flint? Disappointingly, though Byron seems called to be involved in the movement in some way (like his cousins, who marched in the Children’s Crusade), we don’t see it happen.
When it comes to the Watsons themselves though, the movie does a great job of building up the family’s dynamics, so when tragedies (or near-misses, like a fateful swim one young character takes) occur, they resonate with emotion — particularly regarding the events of the bombing. But the aftermath feels cheated. The Watsons return to Flint with the first-hand knowledge that there is evil in the world without answers, something Kenny has come across for the first time in his young life. But it stops there. They have all been affected, but where does it lead? The family watches on the news that President Johnson has signed a bill outlawing racial discrimination, and are of course thrilled. But it all feels like it’s happening from a distance, from the (apparent) safety of Flint.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a launching point, and a fair way to introduce young viewers to an important historical tragedy. It also certainly fits in well with Hallmark’s other programming, which focuses on a desire to provide wholesome entertainment. The Watsons are a fine family to spend two hours with (Wood Harris is a particular standout as the jovial father), but a story that instead revealed more personal acts of heroism might have elevated its impact just that much further.
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