When Tonya Lewis Lee became a mother 17 years ago she could not find many picture books featuring children of color as everyday kids. So years later she and her husband Spike Lee wrote their own book, Please, Baby, Please, about a mischievous toddler.
“Little brown children love that book, and little white children love that book, and that’s how it should be,” Mrs. Lee said in an interview at her Vineyard home.
Later, she ran into the same difficulties while searching for appropriate television shows for her kids. After transitioning from being a lawyer and children’s author to film producer, Mrs. Lee began focusing on presenting authentic diversity in literature, television and film.
Her newest film, The Watsons go to Birmingham, will screen tonight, August 20, at 7 p.m. at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. The film is produced by Walden Media and ToniK productions, a joint venture between Mrs. Lee and producer Nikki Silver.
The film is based on the historical-fiction novel written by Christopher Paul Curtis and set in 1963. The story follows an African American family of five from Michigan as they journey to Birmingham, Ala. in order for the eldest, trouble-making son to spend time with his strict grandmother.
“I think a lot of people can relate to that,” said Mrs. Lewis, who also wrote the screenplay. “Going down south to have the tough grandmother straighten you out.”
The family is welcomed by the grandmother but has to confront racism, from not being served hot dogs at a diner to witnessing the historical 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the subsequent children’s crusade march.
Mrs. Lee traveled to Birmingham to collect information and stories first-hand from those who lived and marched in Birmingham in 1963. She incorporated many stories directly into the film.
“One guy told me there was this huge barrel at the front of the church that they told all the kids to dump anything in that could be conceived as a weapon — pencils, pens, combs. Some just had combs but others had switchblades and knives.”
The marchers came prepared to fight back, but after speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, they tossed their weapons into the barrel. “There is a perception that from the beginning these kids were non-violent, when actually they were ready to fight. But their minds changed as they were tutored by leaders of the civil rights movement. It was like a living history lesson for me.”
In all of her work Mrs. Lee strives to depict young and diverse lives as accurately as possible, such as portraying bi-racial brothers growing up in a rough neighborhood in her mini-series Miracle’s Boys, or looking at the role of African Americans in American culture in That’s What I’m Talking About, a show hosted by Wayne Brady.
“In society, people are affected by the images they see. If we don’t push to make sure that the images we see are realistic, that’s when people begin to racial profile.
“It’s about showcasing diversity. For me, the world I live in is an integrated world. I don’t see that as much as I would like to on television. I don’t see the experiences my children have growing up reflected in television and film. It’s important for me to show that.”
The Watsons go to Birmingham will air on the Hallmark Channel on September 20.