Exploring 1963 Through the Eyes of a Child

Producer Tonya Lewis Lee talks to The Root about why she wanted to make a film about the Jim Crow South.

Tonya Lewis Lee (Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Tonya Lewis Lee (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The year 1963 was a major turning point in the civil rights movement, both in tragedy and hope: the death of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A new movie written and produced by Tonya Lewis Lee examines the impact of that year on a young black family. In The Watsons Go to Birmingham, the Watson family experiences the racial injustices of Jim Crow South when they travel to Birmingham, Ala., from Flint, Mich., during the summer of 1963.

The story is told through the eyes of the middle child, 12-year-old Kenny Watson, a smart, curious academic genius who fancies poems by Langston Hughes. He and his two siblings are confused when they can’t get a hot dog at a lunch counter or have to sit in the colored section of a movie theater. They are inspired when they meet young people who participated in the Children’s Crusade, but their lives are changed forever by the horrific bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church that kills four little girls.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which airs Friday at 8 p.m. EDT on the Hallmark Channel, stars Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, David Alan Grier and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, wife of Samuel Jackson. Lee, wife of director Spike Lee, is an attorney and author. She talked to The Root about her latest project.

The Root: The movie is an adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’ book of the same name. Why did you want to make it into a movie?

Tonya Lewis Lee: I read The Watsons Go to Birmingham about 10 years ago, when my children were small. I was always looking for books that featured people of color, and this was just a great family story to read out loud with my children. It was funny. The family was quirky. And at the same time we had a chance to talk about our difficult American history with my children. I’m always thinking about ways to make history interesting and relevant to young people. This book was definitely a way to do that, and I thought it would be great to make into a film.

TR: Why is this film so important today?

TLL: I think it’s really interesting to see where we were as a country and where we’ve come. We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go. But I would say, especially for young people watching the film, I hope that they see these young people who were part of the Children’s Crusade as inspiration, who saw something that was wrong, morally wrong in their community, and they lent their voices, they marched and they made a difference not just to their community but to the entire country.

TR: Tell me about the values that we see in this film.