Tonya Lee on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”

Tonya Lee on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”

Tonya Lewis Lee has accomplished a lot over the years, but her latest project may be one of her most rewarding experiences yet. Not only is she a mother, attorney, writer, producer, and founder of the women’s health website Healthy You Now, but Lee is also the wife of award-winning producer, director, and social activist Spike Lee.

Urban Faith recently sat down with Lee to discuss her family, marriage, career, and her first made-for-TV film, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, premiering on the Hallmark Channel on September 20th at 8/7 CT. The film is about a family from Michigan that travels to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. There, they witness the social injustice of the South during the Civil Rights Movement, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls. Check out what Lee had to say about life and her upcoming film:

How do you balance it all, with raising 2 teens, a marriage, your career and social life? I was just telling someone the other day that I have issues striking balance right now. I believe that we all can have it all, but we can’t have it all at the same time. For me, with my career, the work that I’ve been doing while raising my children and with a husband who travels a lot and does his own thing, I was able to continue to work in a way that made sense for my children and their schedule. I was OK with that and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So, how do I balance it all? I don’t know! Some days, I don’t get to the gym, but on the days that I can, I go as much as I can. Some days work suffers because I’ve got to do stuff with my son, but the work is still there so I’ll get to it.

Congratulations on making your marriage work for 20 years! With such a busy schedule, how do you and your husband manage to maintain a strong relationship? My husband always jokes, “[The secret] is not talking about it.” That’s our secret. We just don’t talk about it. But seriously, it’s a lot of work. I think you have to be flexible, and people have to go into marriage knowing that it’s not a fairy tale. It’s compromise, patience, and being committed. In a way, if you just keep staying [married], the years just keep flying by. It’s amazing how fast time goes! Honestly for us, our children are really the heart of our family, so it really comes down to what’s going to be best for them. And for us and our situation? Us being together and working it out is what’s best. You have good times, and you have rough times, but you just work through it all.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, from left to right: David Alan Grier, Anika Noni Rose, Skai Jackson (front), Harrison Knight, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, Wood Harris

What inspired you to produce The Watsons Go to Birmingham? Well, first I read the book with my kids when they were younger, and it was a fun read. It also provided an opportunity for [my kids and I] to talk about our history. But we also really did have a great time just reading the book. I’m also someone who really loves the idea of trying to make history interesting and relevant to young people. I think it’s so important that we know where we’ve come from and to understand where we are and where we’re going. So I felt that The Watsons was a great opportunity to, first of all, just show an African American family loving one another. I love the parents in the story who are really parenting their children. They’re struggling with their older son, but they’re not giving up on him. I love the family dynamics! When I initially thought about turning the book into film, it was really more about the family dynamics than the history.

You have already accomplished so much during your career. Why have you decided to produce The Watsons Go to Birmingham now? Well, it really was a 9-year process, but I always say that [the film] came when it was meant to be.

There are so many films that have been produced based on this particular time in history. How did you choose to tell this particular story through film? I look at The Watsons as a vehicle that is really targeted towards children and families. You’re right, there’s a lot of stuff out there on civil rights, but I don’t think that there’s a lot out there on civil rights that speaks to children specifically. The Watsons is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy and his experience in dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, and the bombing.  It’s about families sitting together, watching The Watsons, seeing their family in that, and then having an opportunity to have a real conversation with their young children about the Civil Rights Movement and what it means.

How has Hollywood changed in the past 20 years in addressing major topics in African American History such as the Civil Rights Movement? Right now we’re living in an interesting moment. We’ve got Django [Unchained], The Butler, and then you have 12 Years a Slave that’s coming out in the fall, and we’ve had The Help and Red Tails, so it’s been interesting. I think there’s definitely been some interest in those stories and that’s wonderful. Now of course, everyone has their own way of telling them, and I might not agree with all of it, but I’m happy to see that at least Hollywood is paying attention and interested in doing those stories. It’s all really about really showing the humanity of who we are, and if Hollywood is interested right now in telling the story about how people have gone through struggle and they’ve come out on the other side and it’s OK, I think it’s great.

As someone who is passionate about working with children, how do think Hollywood is doing in really connecting with the African American youth? We really need major work. Honestly, that is something that is very disturbing to me. There are not enough images of children of color featured in any sort of leading role in Hollywood, and it’s really a disgrace. All of us, Black and White, are affected by the images that we see out there, and [African Americans] do not see ourselves represented. We need that! Our kids need that. We need to see images of Black children just being kids, just a regular kid doing regular stuff.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Wow, in 10 years I see myself busy with my films, writing and producing. I also see Healthy You Now. I’m not exactly sure where it will be, but I certainly see it transitioning into something else. I just see myself busy working. The truth of the matter is, I want to be working until I’m 95 years old. I don’t want to stop, and I don’t know why it would stop.

Go behind the scenes with The Watsons Go to Birmingham cast: