'The Watsons Go to Birmingham' hopes to draw young people
In a summer fraught with hate and strife, the Watsons reacted with love and kindness. They were but one family, and fictional 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 movie airing Friday at 8 p.m.
"The real heartbeat of this movie is love," says Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls"). "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 says 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 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 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).
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.
"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."