A new movie, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” which brings to life a popular children’s story with a civil rights angle, will be screened at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday, August 20, in a special sneak preview. The film premieres on TV’s Hallmark Channel September 20, the 50th anniversary of the historic events that transpire in the 1963 story. Longtime Vineyard summer resident Tonya Lewis Lee co-wrote the script and executive-produced the film. The wife of filmmaker Spike Lee, she will introduce the film.
Based on Christopher Paul Curtis’s 1995 Newbery award-winning novel, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” launches a Flint, Mich., family into the roiling history of 1963 when they take a road trip to visit grandma in Birmingham, Alabama. Life in the South is dramatically different than it is in Michigan.
Parents Wilona (Tony Award-winning Anika Noni Rose) and Daniel (Wood Harris of “Hawaii Five-0” and “Southland”) decide to head south after teenaged son Byron (Harrison Knight) shows signs of developing into a juvenile delinquent. They’re hopeful a dose of strict discipline from Grandma Sands (LaTanya Richardson of “Damages”) will set “By” back on the right path. Ten-year-old brother Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) narrates the story, and the youngest child in the family is Joey (Skai Jackson).
The Watsons pile into the Brown Bomber, a vintage 1948 Plymouth equipped with a TrueTone AB-700 Ultra-Glide record player. Typically installed in car dashboards during those pre-digital days, the TrueTone played 45 records that didn’t skip, while the car was moving. A prop person found a TrueTone player in mint condition and it was used in the film, according to Ms. Lee.
Plenty of humorous hijinks happen along the way to Grandma’s. In 1963, Birmingham remained racially divided, however, and Grandma Sands belongs to the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed on September 15, 1963, killing four little girls and maiming others. The bombing signaled a turning point in the nascent civil rights movement of the 1960s, contributing to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The movie version of the story spends more time in Birmingham than the book, and the Watson family is introduced there to a world where blacks are subjected to a virulent racism.
In a recent telephone interview, Ms. Lee called “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” an homage to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963. “The book is widely read, and it’s really funny,” said Ms. Lee, a children’s book author. “I came across it when my children were still pretty young. We read it out loud together.” As someone who grew up in segregated Virginia, the story resonated with her. “It was a great way to talk to my kids about segregation — it was a way to make history relevant and interesting.”
Based in New York, Ms. Lee has been a summer Island visitor for 20 years. She calls her three children summer Vineyarders, since the family was able to spend three months a year on the Island when they were growing up. They attended St. Pierre’s Camp (soon to become the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new home) and learned to swim there. “It was a wonderful way to spend the summer,” Ms. Lee says. “I’m so grateful that they had the opportunity.”
Ms. Lee’s husband introduced her to the Vineyard, and her father, George Lewis, continues to visit and play golf on the Island.
Boston-based Walden Media, which co-produced the film with Ms. Lee’s Tonik Productions and WGTB, has created a curriculum guide for the movie. Information on it is available on their website, waldenmedia.com.
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” Tuesday, August 20, 7 pm, M.V. Camp-Meeting Association Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs. Free. For information, call 212-532-6565.