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)

TR: Since the film includes a very graphic scene of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, did you get any input on this project from your husband, who was nominated for an Oscar for the documentary 4 Little Girls?

TLL: In writing the screenplay and preparing for production, I did a lot of research about Birmingham in 1963. I visited the city with a friend who grew up in Birmingham who introduced me to people who lived through that time. I also read Diane McWhorter’s book, Carry Me Home, about the history of Birmingham. And of course I watched 4 Little Girls several times, which was extremely helpful. So Spike’s work offered wonderful insight into the time and the incident of the bombing. That was the extent, albeit a big extent, of his help.

TR: There’s also an educational component to this film. Could you talk about that?

TLL: Walden Media in conjunction with some incredible people at Harvard have created a teacher’s guide for The Watsons Go to Birmingham, for the book and for the film, that is really phenomenal. What’s so great about it is it’s so comprehensive in that it teaches civil rights. It teaches language, vocabulary. And it really is to help educators facilitate this conversation among young people about civil rights. This really gives them everything they need to be able to teach it in an informed, interesting way.

TR: What do you want people to leave with when they see this film? What are you hoping to achieve?

TLL: I hope people can really relate to the family. I hope that they can relate to these young people and kind of put themselves in this situation through how they would feel in that. It’s my hope that it rings true and relatable. And that they come away realizing that even in the face of the darkness of humanity that we can change our world for the better if we just keep raising our voices, standing strong and standing up to it.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham airs Friday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. EDT on the Hallmark Channel.

Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and senior editor of the Crisis magazine. Follow her on Twitter.