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July 2013

By Joanna Paxinou

Fifty years ago, a horrific event changed our country. Four little girls were killed when a devastating bomb exploded in their church, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The four girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair – were honored by President Barack Obama this May with the Congressional Gold Medal.

A powerful new film THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – due to premiere on September 20 on the Hallmark Channel – tells the story and impact of this tragedy. The film is about a typical American family who travel from their home in Flint, Michigan to visit relatives in Birmingham. They attend the 16th Street Baptist Church with their children when the tragedy occurs, a tragedy that leaves the family and the nation transformed forever.

Tonya-Lewis-LeeThe film script was adapted from the award-winning THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. The book was awarded the Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor. The script was written by Tonya Lewis Lee, who, along with Emmy Award-winner Nikki Silver, former president of On Screen Entertainment, founded ToniK Productions and serve as the film’s executive producers. Ms. Lee also drew into the screenplay many of the real-life details from her husband, director Spike Lee’s great documentary, 4 LITTLE GIRLS.

“I was familiar with the book,” said Ms. Lee, “because my children read it in school. I thought this would be a great project to bring to the screen.” In an interview about the film with ACCESS ATLANTA.COM, she commented, “It’s not a heavy civil rights piece. It’s more about the family and their dynamics. The dad is a cut up and a fun guy.”  

Her first pick for director was acclaimed director Kenny Leon. When she told him about THE WATSONS, he was immediately interested and Ms. Lee was thrilled when he agreed to direct the film. “He’s really great with kids,” she said. “I think it was all very serendipitous.”

Kenny-LeonKenny Leon is one of the most well-respected directors on Broadway. His directorial credits span an incomparable range of work from classic theater to drama, comedy, opera, musicals, musical revues, and films. He has directed plays on and off-Broadway, including his Tony Award-winning revival of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, which earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Director of a Play. He also directed the Emmy-nominated film, A RAISIN IN THE SUN. He has received many awards for his work, which has been described as “theatre that illuminates the diversity of the human experience.” He is founder and Artistic Director of the True Colors Theatre Company, served as Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, the largest regional theatre in the southeast, and spent nine years with the Academy of Music and Theatre.

Leon has directed plays and musicals in regional theatres throughout the U.S., including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Huntington Theatre. He is a member of the National Endowment for the Arts, and serves as Artistic Director of August Wilson’s Century Cycle at the Kennedy Center. He is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University where he also received an honorary PhD.

Tonya Lewis Lee is an award-winning producer and Chief Creator of ToniK Productions. A former corporate attorney, Ms. Lee is a best-selling author, a television and documentary producer, and has been a creative presence in children’s literature and production for almost 15 years. She launched HEALTHY YOU NOW.COM, a website dedicated to supporting women achieve optimal health and wellness, and has received numerous awards for her literary, production and advocacy work. Ms. Lee earned a BA degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law.

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM is a presentation of the Walden Family Theater created in collaboration with Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Walden Media, Tonik Productions, and ARC Entertainment.