Movie Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham

By Michael Leaser

Fifty years ago this past summer, a time bomb set by Klansmen at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, claimed the lives of four young girls getting ready to participate in their church service. The bomb was one of many set off that summer by those unwilling to accept that their fellow citizens with a darker skin color had an equal right to the same educational, business, and social opportunities and privileges of citizenship that they had.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, the latest entrant in Hallmark Channel’s Walden Family Theater, stands out not just for its sensitive, emotional, child’s view perspective of the atmosphere in 1963 Birmingham, but for its true-life depiction of a black family whose positive outlook, loving bonds, and normal, everyday aspirations do more to shame the segregationist mindset than any protest or speech short of “I Have A Dream.”

The Watsons live in Flint, Michigan, fully integrated citizens in their neighborhood. When oldest son Byron starts getting involved with the wrong crowd, parents Daniel and Wilona decide to pack up Byron and their other two children, youngest Joetta and middle child Kenny, the narrator of the story, for a family summer trip to see Wilona’s no-nonsense mother and other relatives in Birmingham. Despite Byron’s problems, never once do we doubt how much his parents and siblings truly love him, nor do we doubt his underlying love for his family as well.

Watching this beautiful family portrayal, it is sad to realize that while our society has made enormous strides in civil rights over the past 50 years, we have also seen an increasing de-stabilization of the black family. In 1963, 24.2 percent of blacks were born out-of-wedlock. According to the most recent data from 2010, 73 percent of blacks are now born out-of-wedlock.

There are plenty of misguided governmental policies that have inadvertently contributed to this problem, but perhaps an even bigger factor is the cultural normalization, if not celebration, of the fractured black family. From the various dysfunctional manifestations and embodiments of hip-hop art to the dearth of positive family exemplars in pop culture, there is very little cultural encouragement, and even discouragement, of nuclear black families. The last best example pop culture had of a stable black family was The Cosby Show, which aired its final episode 21 years ago.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a refreshing example of how a nuclear family can bequeath its members the strength not only to thrive in the midst of bigotry, but also the confidence and support they need to reach their full, God-given potential.