Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham

Well I might as well.

So the Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 is a 1995 Newbery award-winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis. It's good but not particularly remarkable ... until the end which I am now going to spoil.

Most of the book plays like your standard children's book about family dynamics and interpersonal relationships. And it's a very very good version of that, but the last few pages suddenly pull back the curtain to reveal that the book was actually about the Civil Rights movement, racial discrimination and all the ways it affected the kids lives.

The problem with adapting that book is that neither of those is more important than the other. All of the family drama makes the characters relatable and the racism they face is yet one more hurdle to solving what are very real problems to them.

At the same time the end of the book is done in a way that screams loud and clear that the book's entire purpose for being is to discuss how racism affected peoples lives and making the characters not so different from the children reading the book brought that home.

Why am I dancing around it?

It ends with the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, the characters are there and while none of them die there is a real fear from all of them that somebody might have been lost and the drama of that moment evokes an empathy that is hard to instill into not just children but human beings.

The question I asked as I was watching the movie was how was it going to handle that. Could it both be a lighthearted  Beverly Cleary style romp and that in the same way as the book.

I think ultimately the movie does that. But it's a struggle to get there. The book takes place over about 6 months and is paced like it. Not unlike a lot of this style of book it has a sort of sit-com feel as things are very episodic that serves as the context for character interactions.

But there is a narrative being told and the movie wants to keep causality in a way that while present in the book isn't as important. The book is much more episodic in its storytelling. Because of how the movie is structured it feels things are happening a lot faster than they did in the book. That 6 months feels a lot more like 2 weeks with the only clue against that being that the beginning of the book takes place in winter and could ONLY take place in winter.

That is pretty much my biggest beef with the movie.  The first half of the book takes place in Flint, Michigan with very little to give away that it's about racial discrimination. While not necessarily the purpose of the book that first half is important to accomplishing the purpose of the book.

But because the movie is compressed adaptation ,it's a lot more eager to get to the point it in a way kind of misses the forest from the trees as the Watsons are just a family like any other. That's not to say it doesn't try or is offensively bad in this regard but... the book was better.

For the first half of the book, there is a plot that the movie just kind forgets as it gets to the discrimination stuff and I find myself asking why couldn't it try harder to do both.

Okay real quick. Byron, the brother of the narrative and the protagonist has been acting out in a way that is starting to scare his parents. Until one day they have the idea to go to Birmingham to spend the summer with his grandmother in a hope that she and her country ways will be able to talk some sense into him.

There is a lot to unpack there and it is all very important. First off like I said we actually see all the stuff Byron does to get his parents to that point. In the movie not so much as it's in a rush to get to the books half-way point really if we're being honest the 2/3s point.

And also as an adult reading this, there is a sad irony that that change kind of misses. The reason why the Watsons brought their family to that place in that time was because they thought it would do them some good and the last third of the books slowly has their illusions slowly shattered about how the good old ways that specifically Mrs. Watson spends a lot of time clinging to aren't as good as she remembers from her childhood.

There are a lot of hints (mostly because it is still aimed at kids) throughout the book that Grandma Sands, who Mrs. Watson was counting on to teach her kids the good old ways is  a lot more forward-looking than her daughter and the movie had a lot of opportunities to make that subtext text. There is one scene where it comes close with Grandma Sands trying to politely tell her daughter that while the life she's made has its problems it's still better than the one she grew up with and that Mrs. Watson's probably better off looking forward than backward.

The book is very much about the city versus the country. While it has a respect for country living and people in that environment there are subtle criticisms of the notion of city life being inherently corrupting and sinful as the Watsons return to the South.

And both of those are points I wish a more adult version of this story could pull to the fore than the children's book could.

Also, the book is very clearly told from a child's perspective, specifically Kenny the middle child. It's is written in his voice and we the audience only know exactly what he knows.

Since the film is more visual it's a lot easier to see what he's missing.  That's both good and bad. It fundamentally changes the story so that we know things a lot sooner than Kenny does whereas reading the book as a kid I was just about on the same page as he was.

This isn't A Christmas Story or Wonder Years where a now adult version of him can look back and laugh at how dumb he was and Kenny while not being the wild child of the Watsons can be pretty dense. He's 10. And I as a grown man from 2016 also have the benefit of historical knowledge. So I get it but there are still times where I kind of have to facepalm.

To that end, the movie also spends a bit too much time using visual metaphors in a way that can seem pretentious. Especially considering it's an adaptation of a children's book. Like I said the book cleverly hides its messaging in a way that evokes actual surprise and empathy as you slowly realize it has a message to impart.

The movie is heavy-handed in a way I almost want to excuse but can't because... the book was better. Like I said it's from Kenny's perspective and Kenny being a child does not understand or recognize racism.

And teaching kids what racism is, is the point of the book.

So in the book, an audience of children saw the adults around him acting oddly but don't know why until the end reveals the larger context over which the book was taking place.  The book is subtle

 And man that ending milks it.  That ending is the one area of the book that while still from Kenny's perspective is extremely graphic and terrifying even as an adult. And's a made for TV movie it can't compete.

That having been said the actors are giving thier all with what they have and make up for a lot. The Watsons are pretty endearing.

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