Exploring 1963 Through the Eyes of a Child

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.

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.

Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.