Tonya Lewis Lee Talks 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'
Arts and Culture Career

Tonya Lewis Lee Expands Family-Friendly Film Legacy with “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”

"The Watsons Go to Birmingham" producer and writer, Tonya Lewis Lee (Image: File)

Children’s book author, mother and filmmaker Tonya Lewis Lee continues to carry the torch for authentic storytelling that the whole family can enjoy with her latest TV film, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” starring Wood Harris, Anika Noni Rose and David Alan Grier, among other breakout stars. The power half to Hollywood icon Spike Lee  took a minute to chat with on her new venture, why stories of black history are captivating audiences and how career women can balance their life’s work with family time. What should audiences expect after seeing “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”?

Tonya Lewis Lee: They should expect a really warm, loving family. I’m really excited about the fact we’ve been able to bring this beautiful black family to screen, the Watsons, who travel from Flint, Michigan down to Birmingham, Ala., in the summer of 1963. The parents are dealing with a challenging teenager—as teenagers can be—and they decide to go to Birmingham so that his grandmother can give him a dose of tough love. The children have to face segregation in a way that they’ve never had to before.

This will be a fun film, and at the same time I hope people come away learning something. They’re going to laugh, cry, and they’re going to think after watching this film.

It seems that there has been a wave of renewed interest in civil rights- and black history-focused films recently, with the popularity of “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” already getting major attention. Why do you think this is so?

I think on one hand, I know all of us have been working for a long time to get this film made, and I think certainly because this is the time of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington … and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act is coming up next year… so I think people are interested in it because we’re remembering and celebrating milestones.

I also think we’re telling great stories, and when it comes down to it, people are interested in just an awesome story.

You’re known for launching and supporting programming that the whole family can enjoy. Why is that, and what advice would you have for other career women who incorporate a family-first focus in their life’s work as well?

Media really informs the way we all see ourselves in the world—and I mean that in terms of all races. It’s critical we see images of people of color across the board, especially for young people. I started writing children’s books when my children were young because I didn’t see enough that reflected them and their experience. I transitioned into TV production with the same mindset. …It’s important for children of color to see themselves—and white children to see them as well—to understand who we truly are, so that’s why I like to do programming specifically for young people and family. It’s also important to get that exposure early because it informs you as you grow.

As for advice for women who are trying to balance their life’s work with family, there’s this myth that we can do it all, but I think that we can manage a lot of things, just not all at the same time. My husband works quite a bit and travels a lot, and certainly while the children were young, they needed me around. I was able to be at home and be that rock for my family and work in a way that made sense for my family. Now, as my children are on their way out of the house—my daughter’s in college and my son is two years behind her—soon I’ll have my time to myself completely and will be able to go full throttle in my career. We women have to pace ourselves, choose our battles and be OK if everything is not perfect.

What career advice would you give your 21-year-old self, or other young professional women, today if you knew then what you know now?

I went to law school out of college even though I wanted to be in the entertainment business, and I would encourage myself to be fearless and just go for it. I don’t regret getting a law degree, but in my high school yearbook I said I wanted to produce and write for television, so this is something I’ve always wanted to do. It took me a while to get here, but I did it.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham premieres tomorrow, Sept. 20, at 8/7 Central, on the Hallmark Channel.