As Birmingham continues its Empowerment Week, marking 50 years of the Civil Rights Movement, the city is preparing to host the movie premiere of Christopher Paul Curtis’ award-winning novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Adapted from the novel, the movie tells the story of an African-American family traveling to Birmingham from Michigan during the tumultuous sixties. Though fictional, it’s a story that is based on actual events. The Watsons are a Michigan-based family who travel to Birmingham to spend the summer with a relative and find themselves dealing with race and Civil Rights issues during the historical 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the Children’s Crusade.
We sat down with director Kenny Leon, a Tallahassee, Florida native and award-winning Atlanta theater producer, to find out what it meant to him to be a part of this project.
SL: What inspired you to work on this project?
Kenny: I was a Political Science major and a Theater minor so the politics of it intrigued me because of what these 13- and 14-year-old young people did and how courageous they were to get out and march for a better country and a better world. The whole idea of that was exciting to me. But I guess the number one reason was that it wasn’t so much the politics of it, it was the family of it. It was an African-American loving family that had fun with each other, so that was the most exciting thing to me was to see the positive African-American family that producer Tonya Lewis Lee cultivated a story around that tied this fictitious family into real historical events.
SL: What is the most powerful moment to you in the movie?
Kenny: At the end of the movie after the family has been to Birmingham and after young Kenny has witnessed all these horrible things he comes back and stands up for himself. That is very beautiful and powerful to me.
SL: Which character do you identify with most?
Kenny: Kenny is a great character because he’s trying to do the right thing. He’s reading, he loves to read. He appreciates poetry. He appreciates education. He’s going through what does fear really mean? What does fear mean in his life and he comes to understand what courage really means. You have to keep finding yourself.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham premieres to a sold-out audience on September 12, 2013 as part of the City of Birmingham’s commemoration Fifty Years Forward. You can see the movie on the Hallmark Channel September 20 at 8/7c.