September 17, 2013

Poignant family film explores civil rights movement

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies, Television at 3:12 am by dinaheng

The civil rights movement may have occurred in the 1960s, but the importance of standing up for equality for all has not ended.

In “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” — a film based on the 1996 Newberry Award-winning novel by Christopher Paul Curtis — the poignant and powerful story of an African-American family’s summer in Birmingham, Ala. during the height of the civil rights movement is explored. The movie, which premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Eastern, is the latest offering in a series of family-friendly films featured in the Walden Family Theater on Friday nights.Dinah Eng

Making history relevant to youngsters isn’t always easy, but those who watch this film are bound to identify with the closeness of the Watson family, and be moved by the their  efforts to deal with a society in which they are not fully accepted.

“Getting this film made took almost 10 years,” says Tonya Lee Lewis, the movie’s producer and screenwriter. “We were told that doing a period piece around civil rights with a predominantly black cast would be an uphill battle. Now, it’s the 50th year anniversary of the March on Washington and the Children’s March in Birmingham.

“On the one hand, there’s been an incredible amount of progress. My parents grew up in the segregated South. My children, who are 16 and 18, know where they are in the world. And yet, as much progress as we’ve made, other complications have arisen. It’s difficult to have honest conversations. A lot of people don’t understand the history of the country, and who we are as blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites.”

"The Watsons Go To Birmingham" Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham.” Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” is told through the eyes of Kenny, a 10-year-old boy who’s the smart kid bullied at school (portrayed by Bryce Clyde Jenkins). His 13-year old brother Byron (Harrison Knight) is an “official juvenile delinquent,” and little sister Joetta (Skai Jackson) has a heart open to all. When Byron’s pulled one stunt too many, their parents (Wood Harris and Anika Noni Rose) decide to drive the family from their home in Flint, Mich. to visit Grandma Sands (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) in Birmingham.

The culture shock of being in the segregated South forces the Watson children to face what it feels like to be treated as second class citizens.

“I hope audiences come away from the film realizing that when teenagers are going through their changes, and challenging their parents,” Lewis says, “that parents can make a difference and encourage their children to be all they can be. I hope people recognize that just as those who marched 50 years ago in the Children’s March on Birmingham, young people today can make a difference in their world. For in the end, love will overcome evil.”

Celebrating the rewards of virtue is at the heart of movies produced by Walden Media, including films like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Holes.”

Michael Flaherty, president and co-founder of Walden Media, says the idea for the  company came to him several years ago after designing educational software for IBM and working on education reform issues as a speechwriter for William Bulger, then-President of the Massachusetts Senate and Tom Reilly, former Massachusetts attorney general.

“I used to tutor kids on nights and weekends in Boston,” Flaherty says. “When I asked what they did last night, the icebreaker was always watching movies and television. I noticed that after the movie ‘Titanic,’ came out in 1997, the kids started reading books about that period of history.”

So Flaherty reached out to a college friend, Cary Granat, who was producing films like “Scream” and “Children of the Corn” as president of Miramax’s Dimension Films division. The two decided to produce movies that would entice children to learn, and co-founded Walden Media.

After searching for financial backing, and getting thumbs down at every turn, the two met with billionaire Philip Anschutz, who decided to back their venture, which also has a publishing imprint, Walden Pond Press, with HarperCollins.

Photo of Michael Flaherty by

Photo of Michael Flaherty courtesy of Walden Media, Inc.

“When Philip said he’d fund the company, he asked what movies we wanted to make,” Flaherty says, laughing. “My wife is a teacher, and she quickly read me her summer reading list, which included ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and the other films we went on to make.”

Flaherty says unconventional thinking led to the filming of “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

“I had a great conversation with Bill Abbott (president of Crown Media Family Networks), and Hallmark became a partner,” he says. “We financed it with ARC Entertainment, P&G and Walmart. It took people coming together from different walks of life, working with the biggest retailer and biggest consumer products company in the world to get it made.”

Walden Media has developed school curriculum to accompany the film, and Flaherty hopes both will be used to teach about the civil rights period in schools.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” joins other Walden Family Theater features, including “Return to Nim’s Island,” “Space Warriors,” and “Dear Dumb Diary,” which have already aired on the Hallmark Channel. Coming this fall are “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Pete’s Christmas,” and “The Hunters.”

“We’ve decided to keep our eye on family-friendly movies,” Flaherty says. “We don’t worry about what others are doing. We’re big believers in emotional intelligence, asking the kinds of questions that make children think. ‘What would you do in this situation? What is truth? What is love?’ When you use movies this way, the process of learning can be highly enjoyable.”

For more information, check out http://www.hallmarkchannel.com/ and http://www.walden.com/.

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