tonya lewis lee

Tonya Lewis Lee, producer of ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’

*”1963 is not an end, but a beginning,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said as he talked about his “dream” of his four little children being “judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin” – when speaking to hundreds of thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

The difficult days of segregation and racism the slain civil rights leader spoke about 50 years ago are superbly captured in the Hallmark Channel original movie, “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”  It premieres on Friday, September 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT and 7 p.m. CT.

Daniel and Wilona Watson, played by Wood Harris, (“The Wire” and “Remember The Titans”) and Emmy Award winner Anika Noni Rose, (“Dreamgirls” and “The Princess and the Frog”) are raising their three children in Flint, Michigan, like a picture perfect Hallmark card.

Tonya Lewis Lee, the film’s producer, says, “It’s about this family that travels from Flint, Michigan down to Birmingham in 1963. They happen to end up in the middle of, well as the marches are ending – but in the middle of one of the hotbed instances – the 16th Baptist Church bombing that killed the four little girls.”

Lee explains, “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” is more than about the sorrow of the civil rights era.  It shows how even in the best families there can be challenges; in this case the older son, Harrison Knight in the role, is causing major problems.

“The film is really about this family, this mother and father, who are parenting their three children. Their oldest son Byron is a teenager getting into trouble, challenging his parents, the way teenagers do, (and) being the mother of two teenagers I know what that’s like. And they’re trying to figure out what to do to keep him on the straight and narrow path.”

They decide to take him to his grandmother in Birmingham to try to straighten him out. “But it turns out the grandmother is not the thing that straightens him out – although her love is important.  It’s really being in an environment seeing other young people who are so serious about their education. They’re so serious about their lives that they are willing to put themselves on the front line in the face of grown men with dogs, batons, fire hoses,” Lee maintains.

watsons go to birmingham

The cast of ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’

She wants to entertain as well as educate with this movie that took her nine years to get to the small screen. Lee hopes families will sit down together and watch, “The film was put together by Walden Media, Procter and Gamble and Walmart as part of their Walden Family Theater series on the Hallmark Channel. The idea is to bring back family film viewing like back in the day when I was a kid when we watched the “Worldwide World of Disney every Sunday or every other Sunday with my family.”

The wife of legendary filmmaker Spike Lee has a production company, Tonik Productions that is overflowing with other projects. She confirmed Tonik optioned the film rights to the Gallagher Girls (6) book (written by Ally Carter) series, “We are so excited. It’s a great book series. It’s a very diverse group of girls who attend a spy school.  We look forward to delving in and getting that up and on the big screen. Hopefully it won’t take nine years.”

Lee’s production company will soon start filming  a motion picture drama called “The Giver,” “Think “Hunger Games” but without the game of killing people. That is filming in South Africa, Cape Town this fall. We’ve got Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.

Lee says look for “The Giver” to be released in the Fall of next year.

What about her husband? Will they be making any movies together? “I don’t know it’s funny after seeing “The Watsons” he said ‘Oh we gotta do something together. You write it. I’ll direct it.’”

Also starring in “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” is three-time Tony Award nominee David Alan Grier (“Porgy and Bess,” “PEEPLES,” “In Living Color”), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (“The Fighting Temptations”), Pauletta Washington (“Beloved”), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (“Easy A,” “Have A Little Faith”) and Harrison Knight (“We the Party”).

Tené Croom conducted an exclusive interview with Tonya Lewis Lee.

Listen for more of the interview.

Reach Tené at [email protected]