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'The Watsons Go To Birmingham'

The film is more about family than civil rights

By Ronda Rocha Penrice | 9/13/2013, 6 a.m.
Five days following the 50th anniversary of the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, the ...
Based on the award-winning novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, the film places the fictional Watson family in the turbulent city during the tragic bombing that claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. (Hallmark Channel Photo).

Five days following the 50th anniversary of the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, the Hallmark Channel will air the heart-warming film “The Watsons Go to Birmingham “ (Sept. 20, 8 p.m.).

Based on the award-winning novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, the film places the fictional Watson family in the turbulent city during the tragic bombing that claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

The story centered largely around the children Kenny, Byron and Joetta, played respectively by Bryce Clyde Jenkins, Harrison Knight and Skai Jackson, the Watson family venture from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham after Byron, the oldest and a teenager, starts acting out and land smack dab into Jim Crow and heavy civil rights activity.

The film also stars Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and David Alan Grier

Directed by Atlanta’s own Kenny Leon, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is one of the rare family films that openly deal with racial injustice in an engaging manner.

After the film’s special screening Sept. 5 at the Georgia Pacific Theater downtown, Leon and Tonya Lewis Lee, who wrote the screenplay, her first actually, and produced the film through her company, Tonik, participated in a Q&A with Valerie Jackson, the widow of Maynard Jackson and former host of WABE’s book radio show, Between the Lines.

Kicking off the discussion, Jackson shared that she was shaken by the film because she had integrated her high school during the turbulent modern civil rights era and was subjected to racial epitaphs regularly.

Lee, who moved from a more racially integrated environment in Montclair, New Jersey to a more segregated one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in third grade, echoed a similar experience. “I was called the N-word every day. I was isolated,” Lee said. “I say that to say that I certainly did experience, personally, racial injustice and hatred.”

Although The Watsons deal with a difficult time in this nation’s history that, for many in Atlanta, hits extremely close to home, Leon and Lee admitted to dealing with the subject matter with kid gloves largely due to the film’s partnership with Walden Media, cable channel Hallmark and their sponsors Walmart and Procter & Gamble.

Because of those partnerships, Leon shared that “We couldn’t show any gore.” So because the actual bombing, for example, had to be child-friendly, Leon adjusted by focusing on the cars and showing how badly damaged they were to help convey the magnitude of the moment.

Even with the restrictions, however, Leon said, “I loved doing this film. Number one because Mrs. Lee (who is married to acclaimed director and Morehouse alum Spike Lee) asked me, thank you, and, number two, because we shot this movie in Atlanta (despite it being set in Alabama) and, number three, because it’s really about a lovely African American family.”

Lee, who is also an author of children books also loved the family aspect and embraced it in her adaptation of the book.