If kids aren’t learning their history in school, those behind the new Hallmark movie The Watsons Go to Birminghamintend to bring it to them on screen.
Set during the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and premiering around the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing September 20, the television special fictionalizes a day of infamy that would later bring Martin Luther King Jr. to rare public tears.
It follows the Watsons, a middle class African-American family from Michigan who travel to Birmingham at a watershed moment when schools are integrated.
The family bears witness not only to the overt racial creed of the South, but social destruction that mars a moment of victory.
“You need an event to galvanize a people,” star Wood Harris tells theGrio. “All throughout history, it’s like that. We just inherit the past, and nobody knows what to do with it, and then we get some event that reminds us…Rodney King, Boston bombings, Trayvon Martin, there’s a list of them. They’re all great big deals. In 1963, the bombing of a church, and for four little girls to die, I don’t think anybody should forget that.”
Rather than dwell, Harris believes in making amends with life and reaping the reward for toil and struggle.
“People shouldn’t be reminded to feel bad, but just to be empowered by that,” he continues. “It’s like going from poor to rich. You take your experiences as a person who had these goals to accomplish like money and success, and then when you accomplish that, you are empowered by the moments when you didn’t have it.”
What the history books neglect to teach
In the case of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, such moments reflect on a time when freedom was to be acquired like entryway to an exclusive club. Those who fought for a place in line were often dealt a heavy hand.
After President John F. Kennedy announced he would no longer allow for black and white children to be separated in schools, a KKK terrorist group bombed a Sunday School where black youth leaders met to organize protests.
Five decades later, some no longer recall the dark point in history, which became a significant catalyst to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Harris’ own costar, 22-year-old Harrison Knight, admits he’d never heard of the bombing before shooting the movie.
It wasn’t taught in school.
“I knew about obvious pivotal historical events like the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech, I knew about Rosa Parks,” he says.
Harris jumps in.
“You see how it works?” He smiles. “The event is the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, that’s almost it. And so you need The Watsons Go to Birminghamto shine a light on a catastrophic event… The authorities that put together the textbooks and stuff like that, they don’t necessarily have to have the interest of everyone when they build the history stories. Why put in the four little girls? Let’s forget about them.”
Although the TV special taps into a moment of ignominy, it somewhat oppositely tracks the growth and spirit of a devoted family as they secure their relationships with each other, and a place they call home.
Executive producers Tonya Lewis Lee (wife of Spike Lee) and Nikki Silver describe it as the “black Wonder Years.”
Beyond racial skirmish, they used the setting as a means of chronicling the day-to-day liberation of African-Americans seeking freedom from the tangible and mental bonds of enslavement.
The Watsons play with black dolls; they don’t believe angels are white. Under their roof, mom and dad prohibit processing hair to look like a white man.
White does not symbolize purity, but distortion and cultural disintegration.
Lee and Silver say their goal was to make history both relevant and interesting to kids today, and to help parents learn how to discuss injustice with their families.
“People tend to shy away from difficult conversations, from difficult subject matter,” Silver points out. “We want to open dialogues and have conversations.”
In addition to the production, Walden Media has created a civil rights curriculum around the story, which is based on a book.
The movie, also starring David Allan Grier and Anika Noni Rose, prompts children to speak out on the problems of today, and resonates with those currently battling the powers-that-be to seek justice for Martin.
“What I see is the idea that young people [are] looking at a situation that is clearly not right in their minds, and wanting to make a change,” Lee remarks. “Much in the way these young children we showcased in The Watsons Go to Birmingham in the children’s march, I think there are young people out there now that are making their voices heard to say Stand Your Ground is not right.”
The new movement: focusing on human rights, not civil rights
As vessel of change that rippled into raging waters, the show speaks to a journey still in motion today.
It provides a charge forward, as the characters do not cower in fear at violence, but are ignited to demand something better.
Today’s crusade, believes Harris, centers not on civil rights, but human rights, something greater and all encompassing.
“Civility is not enough to ask for,” he explains. “Culturally, we’re always dealing with each other. White, black, whatever – we’re dealing with each other. I don’t want to deal with it. Let’s just put it out here like we’re cleaning the closet out, sorting it out. And there are things you have to give away. There are traditions, ideas, notions that are antiquated, that belong to people who are dead. That people who are living still hold onto for no real reason.”
An ‘All-American Family’
Harris appreciates his role in the new movie, as it offers a break from his typical roles, and the opportunity to be a family man.
Beyond stage plays, he’s most well known for playing Avon Barksdale on The Wire.
“It’s good for people to see me without a bandana on my head or a gun in my hand, or a musician, something that can be negative at all,” he admits.
In that way, the Watsons provide a positive, un-stereotypical image of what it means to be an American.
They’re not on opposite ends of the spectrum, but somewhere in between. They’re optimistic, but not infallible; brave yet hurt; content yet steadily rising.
“There’s no perfect All-American family, or perfect All-American individual,” Harris observes. “A family is one that’s perfect because they’re together – not perfect because they’re not fighting or perfect because everything is good – but perfect because there’s enough love to stay together.”
Director Kenny Leon says he aims to educate youth on the importance of their own role in American society.
“The future of the country lies with them,” he adds. “Regardless of whether their people came here on the bottom of slave slips or if they came here seeking political freedom or religious freedom or whatever. Everybody has the birthright to claim this as their country. We’re a country of immigrants, that’s who we are. I want to give all young people that voice…You determine the future of this country and if you don’t, someone else will.”