In a summer fraught with hate and strife, the Watsons reacted with love and kindness. They were but one family, and a fictional one at that.
But the Newbery Medal-winning book “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” perfectly captures the drama of the civil rights movement. And Hallmark Channel perfectly captures Christopher Paul Curtis’ book in its Friday, Sept. 20, movie.
“The real heartbeat of this movie is love,” says Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls,” “The Good Wife”). “This family loves each other so hard.”
“Wilona loves her husband enough to leave her central unit, her family, and go someplace she does not know or understand,” Rose tells Zap2it of her character. “She loves her children enough to uproot them and bring them to another place, which is almost another time.”
Using period cars and costumes, director Kenny Leon focuses on the huge issues through the filter of a family. Set in 1963, this opens in Flint, Mich., where 12-year-old narrator Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) tells of a long, cold winter in a year of social upheaval and overdue change.
Kenny, whose clothes could have been the inspiration for Urkel, is a sweet, nervous middle child. He loves books and is frequently a target of the tougher kids.
His older brother, Byron (Harrison Knight), is looking for trouble, which of course he finds. Byron is angry, sullen and hanging out with the wrong guys.
Kenny’s younger sister, Joetta (Skai Jackson), is the adorable, doted-upon baby girl of the family. And, Dad (Wood Harris) is an affable guy who adores his wife and kids.
The film does a great job of showing the styles of the times: Kenny, in his bow tie and huge black-rimmed glasses; Joey, in her starched dresses with Peter Pan collars; and Mom, always put together.
The Watsons drive from Flint to Birmingham, Ala., because Wilona misses her mom and needs her help setting Byron straight. En route, radio news alerts them of Medgar Evers’ murder. Bombs have been going off. Racism is rife and the country is on edge.
It’s a wonderful reunion with Wilona’s mom, played by the formidable LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Initially, Wilona is put off by her mom’s boyfriend, Robert (David Alan Grier).
As a child reared in Detroit, Grier had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Poverty in Detroit.
“I remember the general mood,” Grier says.
He recalls his parents moving the 19-inch TV into the living room, and watching the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
“When we marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit, we wanted to play,” Grier recalls. “My brother and sister and I had to put on Sunday clothes, which was a drag. My mom and dad told us it was very important we do this as a family and to stop wiggling. This is going down. I was watching huge throngs of people, and I was rewarded with an ice cream cone.”
Grier’s recollection is precisely what a child would remember and the very spirit the movie embraces. It never condescends to a younger audience. The adults know the situation is dire, but they don’t shield the children from the truth.
For Kenny and his siblings, 1963 Birmingham is so foreign. Grier’s character, Robert, and the grandmother try to explain the ways of the South to these northern children. The Watson kids have never been denied food at a lunch counter or had to use “colored only” bathrooms.
Byron, not surprisingly, is ready to fight for his rights. But his elders guide him, teaching him to fight without using fists.
Byron, who adores his younger brother, becomes a man that summer by saving Kenny’s life and later explaining to him that life isn’t fair, as Kenny suffers flashbacks from a horrifying act of terrorism.
Beloved little sister Joey is in the 16th Street Baptist Street Church when it is bombed. Four girls were murdered and one was blinded in the actual bombing.
Kenny had walked Joey to the church for early choir practice. She was happily wearing brand new Mary Janes.
When Kenny, like most people in town, race to the church after the explosion, he espies in the rubble shiny patent leather Mary Janes and is scarred. Certain his sister has been killed, Kenny retreats.
All little girl in 1963 wore Mary Janes for dress-up shoes, and it was another little girl’s feet he saw.
The film expertly weaves in black-and-white footage of cops spraying protestors with fire hoses and siccing their dogs on crowds of people fighting for their rights. There’s Alabama Gov. George Wallace making his infamous speech: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Certainly we know where this chapter of history ends, but seeing it played out through the eyes of this family is a treat.
“You want young people” to watch, Grier says. “It is a family endeavor. What would be best is a family sits down and watches it. And then this sparks conversation. That is ideally what we would like.”