The Summer of 63
The Watson family live in Flint, Michigan where Mrs. Watson (Anika Noni Rose) is becoming concerned that their eldest son Byron (Harrison Knight) is heading in the wrong direction as he has fallen in with a bad crowd, started playing with matches in the home and even started slapping product in his hair to straighten it out. It is why they decide to take some time off and head down to Birmingham, Alabama to spend some time with their grandmother with Byron going to stay there for a year to help straighten him out. But Birmingham is very different to Flint as there is still blatant racism and plenty of social unrest which is eye opening to the Watson children who have never encountered segregation especially when events at the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham hit them more than ever.
With the frequent use of narration from Kenny, the middle child, as he reminisces back to the summer of 1963 there is something almost "Wonder Years" about "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" as we enter the world of the Watsons living in Flint. And it is an effective mechanism to lull you in with an old fashioned this is how it was charm with the family having fun whilst eldest son Byron starting to act all tough and so on. It is frankly light on the grit of realism during the opening and to be honest throughout the movie because this is a TV movie which wants to appeal more than hit the audience hard with stark realism.
But this easy going opening is a clever mechanism as then when the story takes us to Birmingham it then incorporates the realism but in an eye opening manner for the young Watsons as they experience for the first time the racism, the segregation and the attitudes of those who discriminate for no reason at all. At the same time we also see those who march for equality and there is a mix of archive footage and recreated scenes which has a surprisingly powerful impact and works well to inform those who may only have heard the riots mentioned and not read anything about them let alone experienced the trouble first hand.
Now one of the biggest compliments I can pay "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" is that the acting is so spot on that there isn't a star in this movie. Yes Harrison Knight as Byron is very much the focus of the movie whilst Bryce Clyde Jenkins as Kenny is are guide but every other character is just as important and each actor be it Anika Noni Rose or Wood Harris bring layers to their characters to make them easy to connect with and understand.
What this all boils down to is that "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" is both an effective and entertaining movie which looks back at the segregation and troubles in Birmingham during 1963. But it isn't gritty or hard hitting just effective for the sort of audience who tends to watch TV movies and as an introduction for a younger audience not ready to watch anything gritty.