One of the delights of works of fiction is that they can take history and make it accessible, while preserving its deeper truths. That's the aim of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham," (8 tonight, Hallmark Channel), a sweet but surface-y movie based on the 1996 award-winning children's book by Christopher Paul Curtis.
The title gives away the basic story; the Watsons, an African-American family, live in Flint, Michigan in 1963. Parents Wilona (Anika Noni Rose) and Daniel (Wood Harris) are loving and involved. The film is narrated by Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), the smart, sensitive and bully bait middle son; little sister Joetta (Skai Jackson) is a doll. And then there's older brother Byron (Harrison Knight) who has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is acting out. Like most blacks of their era, the parental Watsons are transplants; they followed the Great Migration up north. But when they see Byron is in real trouble, mom and dad decide to drive back home to Birmingham to visit Wilona's mother (LaTanya Richardson) and leave Byron in her no-nonsense care. David Alan Grier appears as the unexpected beau of grandma.
Of course, they are going home during a pivotal summer in Birmingham; there have been children's marches, bombings -- all manner of civil unrest in what would be called the Civil Rights movement. When the Watsons go to Birmingham, it will be a life changing experience.
As far as the performances are concerned, the film is top notch. Rose and Harris' relationship is beautifully crafted; Harris, most famously known as a villain on "The Wire", here is the kind of dad we all want -- loving, funny, with a deeper understanding of his kids than is first revealed. All the young actors are fine too; there's no woodenness in any of them.
But the script (written by Tonya Lewis Lee, director Spike Lee's wife --see his brilliant "Four Little Girls") ultimately doesn't live up to the promise of the talent involved. Too often, the viewer is told instead of shown, or a moment doesn't get its payoff. Bad boy Byron, at first, seems on a bad path. But once he's in Birmingham that problem seems almost instantly solved. It seems, too, that he'll be transformed by engagement in the civil rights; his Southern cousins are all involved. Yet that thread isn't pursued.
Still, you can't leave this film not feeling something and feeling good. And if you are looking to start a conversation about civil rights with your kids, and in particular, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (the 50th commemoration was just in the news) that killed four little girls, this isn't a bad way to begin. It's simple enough for younger kids to understand without being too scary or controversial.
In the end, children are left with the idea that in a world that sometimes has inexplicable violence, love protects them. That's a message that stands the test of time.