Movie Details Black Family's Experience With Racism in 1960s South

Wednesday, 18 Sep 2013 07:05 PM

By Bill Hoffmann

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A trip from Flint, Mich., to Birmingham, Ala., in the early '60s would trigger a serious case of culture shock for anybody — but even more so for an African-American family.

That's the premise of the new movie, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," which debuts on the Hallmark Channel at 8 p.m. Friday.

Based on Christopher Paul Curtis' Newbury Award-winning book, the story follows a young mother and father and their three children who journey by car into the heart of the Deep South to visit the youngsters' maternal grandmother.

The idea is for the goodhearted but strict Grandma Sands to help tame 15-year-old Byron Watson, who has been acting out and getting into trouble at home.

"Byron is an intelligent guy, but he's really misguided," said actor Harrison Knight, who plays the troubled teen.

While racism was very much alive in much of the United States at the time, Birmingham was one of the nation's capitals of prejudice — and became a lightning rod for the Civil Rights movement — a fact the family discovers quickly upon arrival.

The Watsons' experiences with racism — such as "colored" restrooms and segregated restaurants — boil over when a Baptist church is bombed. The incident is based on the notorious 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four girls on Sept. 15, 1963.

The book and its characters are close to the heart of Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of director Spike Lee. She wrote the screenplay and served as an executive producer.

"I had two parents who were pretty strict and I was a rebellious teenager," Lee told Newsmax. "And my family is from the South — from Virginia, which was segregated.

"I thought I had an understanding of the characters and I could help bring [the film] to life."

The cast and crew filmed on location in Atlanta, and found a church that Lee said was a near-perfect match for the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The film, directed by Tony Award-nominee Kenny Leon, and starring Anika Nini Rose, David Alan Grier, Skai Jackson, and Wood Harris, has received positive reviews, leading to the possibility of a sequel or a series.

Lee said there is talk of the Watson family characters starring in a kind of "black 'Wonder Years,'" a reference to the hit TV show starring Fred Savage which aired on ABC from 1988-1993.

A DVD of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" — a production of Micheal Flaherty's Walden Family Theater, a division of Walden Media — will go on sale Sept. 24 exclusively at Wal-Mart stores.

The MPAA has rated the movie PG for thematic elements, some violent images, and mild language.

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