Church bombing backdrop to Hallmark family film

TV preview

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham,” 8 p.m. Friday, Hallmark

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” a new Hallmark Channel film shot in Atlanta, uses the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombings that killed four little girls 50 years ago as a backdrop about life when the civil rights movement was making an impact on the entire nation.

But this is no “Mississippi Burning” or “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The film, which debuts Friday, features plenty of comedic moments about family life, punctuated by a kid getting his lips stuck on a car window in the dead of winter.

“It’s not a heavy civil rights piece,” said Tonya Lewis Lee, Spike Lee’s wife and the person who adapted a best-selling book into the script. “It’s more about the family and their dynamics.”

Atlanta director Kenny Leon oversaw the brief 19-day shoot earlier this year and credits the three child actors for carrying the film.

The middle child, Kenny (played by Bryce Jenkins), is the narrator. He’s a smart, bullied 10-year-old with big glasses who struggles to understand and absorb the dangers around him. Byron (Harrison Knight) is his 15-year-old brother who keeps getting in trouble, inspiring his mom to take the family to Birmingham to be with her grandmother for the summer where he could learn some manners. Joetta is the know-it-all 8-year-old sister (Skai Jackson).

“I knew the key would be casting the three young people,” Leon said. “Nothing kills a good family film faster than if you’ve got bad acting kids.”

Given the short time frame they had to shoot the film, Leon had the advantage of knowing where to go for certain vistas, who to cast for speaking roles from the deep pool of Atlanta actors and how to get around local traffic. “The fact we got a lot of crew and actors from Atlanta makes me proud,” he said.

This film was more complicated to direct than his remake of “Steel Magnolias,” which he shot here last year for Lifetime. He had to fill scenes with snow where Atlanta masquerades as winter in Flint, Mich. There is a near-drowning scene shot in Stone Mountain where Kenny sees a demon that had to be created in post-production. Leon had to re-enact the explosion and devastation at the church.

Author Christopher Paul Curtis, who wrote the original best-selling 1996 novel for middle schoolers, said he was “ambivalent” at first about his book being turned into a film.

But once he was on the set, he said he was “blown away.”

Curtis said he hopes “the book and movie can do something to pique young people’s interest and let them realize that people actually gave their lives so they can go to good schools, that they can lead good lives.”

“Treasure that,” he said. “Young people need to get that message.”