To mark the 50th anniversary of pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement, the Hallmark Channel can take pride in presenting a production of historical fiction that provides a true education. The Watsons Go to Birmingham premieres Friday, Sept. 20, and tells the story of an African American family from Flint, Michigan that found their lives forever changed during a road trip to Birmingham, Alabama in the Summer of ’63.
The story has the Watsons loading up their 1948 Plymouth and heading South with plenty of comedy and music en route. When they finally make it to Birmingham, they discover that life in their Grandma’s town is very different. During that historic summer, the Watsons find themselves caught up in something that will change their lives and country forever.
Kenny Leon directed the magnificent production (shot in Atlanta) for producers Nikki Silver and Tonya Lewis Lee. Silver said, “It’s been a ten-year journey for us, and we thank Hallmark for stepping up to make this important film. Hallmark is the ultimate family brand, and the Watsons are the quintessential American family who serve as a prism through which the audience can view a historical change in America.”
The film stars Anika Noni Rose (The Good Wife, Dreamgirls, The Princess and the Frog) and Wood Harris (The Wire, Remember the Titans) as Wilona and Daniel Watson, the parents to three kids: 15-year-old delinquent Byron (Harrison Knight), 11-year-old nerd Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), and sweet eight-year-old Joetta (Skai Jackson). The family hits the road for Birmingham (to help Byron learn some discipline) to visit Grandma Sands (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), and her friend Mr. Robert (David Alan Grier).
The movie was adapted from the book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, that earned author Christopher Paul Curtis the prestigious 1996 Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Award.
The Watsons are in the heart of the South during the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement. The young actors who play the Watson kids in the movie also learned a lot. Bryce Jenkins said, “I learned about the type of events and things that people had to go through back then, so people like me could be where we are today. I believe that it is important to fix things, and see things in the past, because we can learn from them and grow as a community.” It is mind-boggling, he said, for the current generation of school kids to think that they would not be able to sit at a lunch counter, or drink water from a fountain, or that they would have to use a separate entrance to enter a movie theater.
Producer Silver recalled, “The day we recreated the children’s march which was a very important part of this film, one of our makeup artists told us she participated in the march. She told the entire cast what it was like to be part of that history.” Director Leon mentioned, “During the church scene we had 95-year-old Miss Pearl who also reminded us about the history she has seen. And that reminded me that black history and white history is our history, and kids have to see this to learn the lessons of our history. There were tough times, but ultimately this film is about family and love of our country, and how people can make the world better.”
To that end, the production company Walden Media, in partnership with the Hallmark Channel and Zaner-Bloser Educational Publishers, has put together an incredible curriculum as part of this film and go into schools, “to inform the teaching of this period of our history,” Silver said. Designed for students grades 4-12, The Watsons Go to Birmingham Cable in the Classroom Teacher Guide offers parents and educators a turnkey lesson plan, streaming video resources and archival photographs, giving fresh context to the injustices and boiling tensions that incited the Civil Rights Movement. Using the themes and messages explored in the movie as a narrative backdrop, the Guide is based on the Zaner-Bloser Voices Curriculum and was written in collaboration with Professor Robert Selman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham Teacher Guide,” will be free of charge on a dedicated Hallmark Channel microsite and the Walden Media website walden.com. Cable in the Classroom will promote the teacher resources as part of “Back to School” offerings.