Hallmark Channel’s warm but sometimes thin adaptation of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” based on Christopher Paul Curtis’s award-winning children’s book, is at first a welcome departure from the network’s usual Slanket-ready movies, in that it’s not about a woman who moves to a charming, upscale farm town and surrounds herself in the narrative equivalent of a roomful of scented candles.
Instead it’s about an African American family from Flint, Mich., that drives to Alabama for a long visit with relatives in the summer of 1963, where, of course, they peripherally experience certain key moments in the civil rights struggle, including the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church three weeks after the historic March on Washington.
For its first half-hour or so, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” (airing Friday night with what appears to be a daunting number of commercial breaks) achieves what is still unfortunately too rare — a depiction of black life and black history on television that doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. Everything that “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner keeps overlooking about the black experience of the 1960s in American culture seems to be hiding here, right down to some flawless period details and a knack for overhearing news reports that come on just as the characters happen to be near a radio or TV.
Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”; “The Good Wife”) stars as Wilona Watson, wife and mother of three. When her oldest, Byron (Harrison Knight), starts hanging out with the wrong crowd (whose crimes include hair relaxing), Wilona and her husband, Daniel (Wood Harris), decide its time to visit her family back in Alabama and leave the teen with Wilona’s mother (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) for a year, to see if she can shape him up.
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is narrated in the voice of Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), the bespectacled, bookish middle child who fends off schoolyard bullies and reads beautifully from Langston Hughes. In Michigan, we almost seem to be settling into a period piece about life in a mid-century utopia on the fringes of Motown, where, like in “A Christmas Story,” a child accidentally melds his lips to a frost-covered car. It’s as though some other, better movie awaits in this part of the tale, but go to Birmingham the Watsons must. They take care to leave at the crack of dawn so as to drive only during daylight, and, after a foreboding “Be careful” from a diner waitress, they head farther south, guided by Wilona’s journal filled with travel advice from neighbors and relatives.
Nearly all of the foreshadowing in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is for naught: The Watsons do indeed encounter the ugliness of the Jim Crow South in terms of bad vibes and segregated services, but mainly they listen to their family members talk about recent events (cousins tell of being blasted by fire hoses) and the progress that has been made (Grandma goes long on her impoverished childhood), which means there’s a lot more tell here than show. A sizable chunk of the film’s themes lean heavily on the Watson children’s invented metaphorical creature who dwells at the bottom of a swimming hole they’re forbidden to visit; the creature then makes an eye-
rolling appearance in the aftermath of the church bombing. (As if to underline all this more bluntly, the children go see a matinee of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the masterpiece work of civil rights era allegory.)
Then again, this is a movie meant for kids or for people simply wanting to hear a story that is safely swaddled and bearing the Hallmark crown; we therefore can’t make too many demands on it to be brutal or too real. It’s a shame though, because the cast (especially Skai Jackson as the youngest Watson kid, Joetta) seems ready and able to do a lot more than the screenplay asks them to do. Gorgeously filmed and having the highest intentions, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is about a place and a time and a movement, but it’s not convincingly about people.
(two hours) airs Friday at 8 p.m.
on the Hallmark Channel.