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September 20, 2013

By Joanna Paxinou

watsons go to burminghamThe stellar cast features Tony Award winner and Grammy Award nominee Anika Noni Rose, three-time Tony Award and Grammy Award nominee David Alan Grier, Wood Harris, LaTanya Richardson, and Skai Jackson, Bryce Jenkins and Harrison Knight play the children.

A powerful and entertaining movie--THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM--will premiere on Friday, September 20 on the Hallmark Channel.

The film is about the Watsons, an African American family, that drives from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama to visit their grandmother during the summer of 1963. They are there when the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church kills four little girls...a tragic event that changes the family's lives and country forever.

This May, President Barack Obama honored the four girls--Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair--with the Congressional Gold Medal.

"The event (bombing) is seen through the eyes of the Watsons' young son who sees America's difficult history," said Tonya Lewis Lee who produced the film with her partner in ToniK Productions, Emmy Award Winner Nikki Silver. Ms. Lee also wrote the script, adapting it from the Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King HonorAward-winning book, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Ms. Lee also incorporated many details from her husband, Spike Lee's documentary "4 LITTLE GIRLS."

"It's a complicated film but a wonderful story," said Kenny Leon, the film's distinguished director and Tony Award nominee. "There's a warm feeling that comes across. The story is really about a loving family. The dad is fun. It's a personal drama with a universal appeal. A message is there for all of us. It shows teenagers how to stand up for themselves. The film tells the story of a good family with both parents loving and traveling with their kids. They're almost perfect parents. This kind of African American family is not usually shown on TV."

He believes that the film appeals to all ages. "In the film, the parents navigate and socialize their children to the world. The bombing is a horrific act, but it's how the family handles it with their children," Leon explained.

"The film will make you laugh and cry," continued Ms. Lee. "It will make you think and start conversations. It shows how far we've come and where we still have to go. Nikki and I have been together on this journey to get the film made. We wanted to make history relative and interesting to young people. The film tells why we are where we are. Nikki and I are really excited to bring the book to life to broaden the audience."

Ms. Lee talked about the powerful role young children played in the civil rights movement. She explained: "The film recreates the aspect of the children's crusade. Children left school and marched for equal education.They faced fire hoses and dogs. The film makes young people understand that they need to lend their voices to something meaningful--you can make a difference in the world.

"One of the family's children is a misguided youth who goes through the journey in the film and he learns and grows,"Ms. Lee said. "By the end of the film the audience believes he'll do better-- he has a sense of purpose."

Leon stressed: "I would like teenagers to see the film--it will help them understand our country's past and about the movement." He said that the civil rights movement began with 13 and 14- year-olds. "They encouraged and motivated their parents to come out and protest for equal rights.

"There were 900 of these kids put in jail for six days," he continued. "It was Youth Sunday at the church when the bombing occurred in 1963. They (the people who planted the bomb) knew the church was full of young people. The film shows that teenagers want to live in an inclusive country. They need to focus on their responsibility to this country, to their family, to themselves."

"Older audiences will see how the parents in the film are parenting their kids," Ms. Lee commented. As a mother of teenage children, she realizes it's not easy. But she urges parents to stay with them--they can come out on the other side. "The film helps show parents how to deal with difficult subject matters and be able to talk about difficulties and our history," she said. "These are difficult conversations but we can learn and grow from each other. We can respect one another's opinions and grow from this."

Ms. Lee talked about reading the book to her children when they were younger. "We enjoyed it. It's so funny but also causes serious conversations. It instilled interests in integration, segregation, family...being committed to humanity."

Commenting that it happens that the film is premiering on the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham bombing, Ms. Lee said, "We hope families will come together to view the film and talk about it."

Everyone connected with making this film was deeply affected and committed. In a recent interview for ICG Magazine, James Chressanthis, ASC, the film's Director of Photography, commented, "It took more than nine years from the time Tonya conceived the idea until the film was produced. Her passion for this topic is woven into the fabric of the story. During our earliest meetings, Kenny and I discussed how we were going to take the audience inside a very intimate story that happened 50 years ago, and with three children playing key roles."

Chressanthis discussed his personal connection to the film. "I saw the brutal inequities that black people suffered in my childhood. There were tragic incidents that were unfortunately normal, daily experiences. I felt that I could contribute to this film by drawing on my memories of those incidents."

He went on to praise the crew. "The crew was fantastic! We had a demanding schedule, shooting entirely at practical locations with children in many scenes. Production designer David Chapman and costume designer Johnetta Boone helped us transport audiences 50 years back in time. It was like walking into a time machine. David built a section of the church that was blown up for the chillingly chaotic aftermath scene."

One of Kenny Leon's next projects will be directing Denzel Washington and Diahann Carroll in A RAISIN IN THE SUN on Broadway, with Scott Rudin as producer. This marks Ms. Carroll's first stage appearance after 30 years. "I'm very excited," Leon said calling "Denzel the greatest African American actor in our generation." Rehearsals begin January 27 and the play opens on April 3 in the same theater that Sydney Poitier appeared when he performed the lead in A RAISIN IN THE SUN in 1959.

Leon worked with Denzel Washington on FENCES in 2010 and they pledged to work on a project every three-four years. Leon said he is attached to RAISIN and called the author, Lorraine Hansberry, a great talent. "She died much too young," he said. "She wrote RAISIN when she was only 28 and died at 34. "

The film--THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM--is part of Hallmark Channel's exciting new Friday night viewing franchise, Walden Family Theater, created in collaboration with with the award-winning family entertainment producer Walden Media, ToniK Productions and ARC Entertainment, in association with Walmart and Procter & Gamble.


At The Movies With Joanna


Joanna Paxinou has been a film buff since she was a little girl growing up in New York City within walking distance of the great movie houses on Broadway. She has been an award-winnng business writer and has edited both fiction and non-fiction books. But her heart is still with films.

Joanna studied script writing for eight years in invitation-only workshops conducted by New York University faculty and is still studying writing with on-line courses at UCLA. She has co-written a film script, The Circle of Olympians...Return to Power and has two scripts optioned by an Los Angeles producer. Joanna also wrote a mystery entitled Killer in the House.

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