Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Watsons Go To Birmingham - An Interview with the film-makers

I think this is an important and relevant film for today. Rogers and Cowan arranged for me to interview the folks responsible for this film project, and it is my privilege to share their thoughts with you here on my blog.  The film airs on the Hallmark Channel Friday, September 20th.  Go here to find out more!

What made this award-winning piece of fiction the right choice for film adaptation in 2013?  Turning this wonderful book into a film has been a nine year journey for us together.  While we wish it was realized a long time ago, with our persistence and never give up attitude, the film was ready when the timing was right.  Now it is the 50th anniversary of the events that we depict in the film and we have a chance to remind young people of our shared American history.  The film and the issues we discuss are especially poignant as the Supreme Court rolled back on Voting Rights so that young people understand why the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were needed in the first place.  It is important for us all to know where we came from in order to understand why we are where we are to plan for the future and where we want to go.

  As a 20-year resident of Alabama, I know first-hand that racism is alive and well.  I also know that it is a two-way street. What percentage of the general populace feels as though they are the target of prejudice in the 21st century?  While racial prejudice can go both ways, institutional racism truly impacts African-Americans disproportionately and especially poor African-Americans.  When we look at the disparity in economics, education, health and criminal justice, African-Americans are still at the losing end.  This is not because African-Americans lack the intelligence or the wherewithal, but because generations of systems, laws and legislation work against them.  So while we have made progress in the last fifty years by eliminating legal segregation and civil rights legislation was enacted to protect the rights of people of color in America, the fight continues.

Byron seems to be the focus and purpose behind the trip to Birmingham, yet he not the only one profoundly changed by the events of the film.  The scene between him and Kenny by the side of the pond was especially touching!  What was the most challenging part of his particular role?  In writing the script, the most challenging aspect of Byron was making sure we understood the complexity of who Byron is as a teenager who is trying to figure out life and to make sure we understood how and why he changes by being in Birmingham.  Byron is a teenager and like so many he makes mistakes --he hangs with the wrong crowd, he rebels against his parents, he picks on his little brother -- and yet he loves his family. When he discovers true meaning in the world and begins to see a purpose in his own life he becomes more focused on his own possibilities.  He begins to understand that he can make a difference in his world just like his cousins.

 Mrs. Watson seems to be a particularly complex role, because she has really turned a blind eye to the reality of racial tension. She even says, at one point, that her mother is stronger than she is.  Kenny reflects the same dichotomy of strong and weak.  What challenges did these two roles present in the transition from novel to film?  Each character had its own unique challenges, but Mrs. Watson and Kenny represent the raw pain of dealing with segregation...they internalize the societal slights and express the devastating impact that living as a second class citizen has on  a people.  We would argue that Mrs. Watson has not turned a blind eye to the reality of racial tension, but in fact feels it intensely and hence does not want to deal with the pain and does not want that inflicted on her family.  She thinks of her mother as stronger because her mother can withstand the daily degradation seemingly without anger, frustration and sadness.  I don't believe it is true, but we often think of those who can face difficulty as strong and those who walk away from it as weak...

Do you think the film will draw attention back to the original novel? Why or why not?  We certainly hope the film draws attention to this wonderful novel as any adaptation often does.  When people enjoy these characters on screen we hope they decide to read the novel, which is slightly different than the film.  And Walden has created such a wonderful curriculum for educators to use in teaching both the film and the book that we hope teachers and parents will take the opportunity to really inform young people about our history.

Hallmark Channel and Walden Media are in a partnership with Cable in the Classroom (CIC) and will offer educators a new framework for teaching their students about the  Civil Rights Movement with a customized curriculum created around “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

Developed by Walden Media, in partnership with Zaner-Bloser Educational Publishers, and designed for students, grades 4-12, “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” Teacher Guide offers parents and educators a turnkey lesson plan, streaming video resources, and archival photographs, giving fresh context to the Civil Rights Movement. Using the themes and messages explored in the movie as a narrative backdrop, the Guide is based on the Zaner-Bloser Voices Curriculum and was written in collaboration with a team led by Professor Robert Selman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” Teacher Guide, which will be free of charge on a dedicated Hallmark Channel microsite ( ) and the Walden Media website , integrates social-emotional learning, literacy, writing, and character education designed to reinforce critical thinking and deep comprehension skills. 

Without spoilers, what is your most satisfying scene in the film?  This is hard to answer because each scene matters, but I would say the last scene of the film.  I love seeing this family together and the last scene sums up the entire sentiment of the film. A touching example of how people come-together and support one another during difficult times and is played out beautifully in both the book and the movie.  Their experiences give them a newfound courage to stand up for what is right and helps them grow stronger as a family in the process. The Watsons Go To Birmingham demonstrates the power of family, the power of children to learn and grow and the power of love over evil.

What is the take-away message you hope fans of film will take away from the Watson’s go to Birmingham?  The take-away message that we would like people to have with The Watsons Go To Birmingham is the message for young people that, like the young people in the children's crusade in Birmingham, if they see something in their world that is wrong they can fix it by being committed and raising their voices.  Despite the ugly brutality that they faced, these young people made a difference in the lives of us all by standing up with courage and letting the world know they deserved to be treated like human beings.  As cliche as it may sound we  hope that people come away from the film understanding that love truly  overcomes hate.

No comments: