*It’s been a long walk to freedom for producers of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.”
The Hallmark Movie Channel’s adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel follows a Detroit family’s visit to Birmingham in 1963, where the three siblings get smacked in the face with the type of racism they had previously only seen on television.
The film was not an easy sell, according to Tonya Lewis Lee. She and her production partner Nikki Silver spent ten years trying to pitch “Watsons” before Hallmark stepped up to the plate.
“It just so happens that it’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which you happen to see in the film. And for some reason, maybe it’s serendipity, it just so happened to come together at this time,” Lee told critics this summer at the TCA Press Tour.
Wood Harris and Anika Noni Rose play the parents of young Joetta (Skai Jackson), middle son and narrator Kenny (Bryce Jenkins), and restless older brother Byron (Harrison Knight), who has a real problem with authority. All three get a rude awakening once in “Bombingham.” Byron can’t understand why he can’t get a burger at the lunch counter. All three are puzzled when told they must enter a movie theater through the back door. The experiences shake their innocence and culminate with a personal stake in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church.
Hallmark brings “Watsons” to the network with backing from Walden Family Theater, a partnership with Walden Media, Arc Entertainment, Wal-Mart and Proctor and Gamble. The companies came together with the goal of churning out family films.
“Walden was actually very excited about spending more time in Birmingham, different from the book,” said Lewis, the wife of director Spike Lee. “In the book you don’t really spend a lot of time in Birmingham and get a sense of what it would be like to live in the segregated South. And Walden really wanted us to spend some time there. And so they really encouraged me to open up the story and delve into what it would be like to live for this family from Flint, Michigan to actually end up in Birmingham and have to deal with segregation.”
David Alan Grier and LaTanya Richardson play the Birmingham-steeped grandparents who love on the kids through all of the hate they experience. The cast took direction from veteran Broadway helmer Kenny Leon.
Below, Leon recalls a day of shooting when he was moved emotionally by one of the extras.
“The Watsons go to Birmingham” premieres Friday (Sept. 20) on the Hallmark Movie Channel. Watch a featurette below.