Better Half

Tonya Lee on Her New Hallmark Movie, ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’

Spike’s wife now has her own production company, with her first project premiering Friday night. She talks to Allison Samuels.

Courtesy ToniK Productions; Quantrell D. Colbert/Crown Media

Tonya Lee has one important rule in the home she shares with her teenage son and director husband, Spike. No reading allowed—of other people’s scripts, that is.

Lee, a former attorney, is now focusing full time on writing and producing television and film projects, with the first, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, making its debut on the Hallmark Channel on Friday night. The made-for-television movie is based on a novel by Christopher Paul Curtis that follows an African-American family who deals with racism while visiting Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

Lee said she decided to make the film soon after reading Curtis’s story for the first time.

“I read to my kids all the time and they loved it,” said Lee, who also has a daughter in college. “I loved [Curtis’s book] because it had so much history in it and they loved hearing it. It’s really a book about family and family love, above all else. It’s about parents trying to figure out what to do about a teenager that’s driving everyone in the house nuts. Finally they figure it out.”

In the film, the family decides to drive their troubled oldest child from their home in Flint, Michigan, to his grandmother’s home in the South. Their trip happens to coincide with one of history’s most difficult moments, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls in 1963.

“The parents decide their son is getting into too much trouble so they take him to see his grandmother because she can set him straight like nobody else can,” said Lee. “I have two teenagers, so I know how difficult that can be. But that’s not what causes the change in their son, though it helps. Seeing the real pain of the civil rights movement and the suffering of so many people puts him on the right track.”

The film took more than nine years to make, a drawn-out process that underscores the need for more diversity behind the camera and in the boardroom, she said.

“I think because it was a film about blacks and the civil rights movement, we did have some issues getting it done to some extent,” said Lee. “It’s not an easy story to see or hear for a lot of people. But it just so happened to come during the year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which means the timing was pretty good after all. It’s on time, I think.”

Lee acknowledged that she didn’t allow her director husband Spike Lee the opportunity to read the script until well after she’d finished it and done rewrite after rewrite.

“We both do that,” she laughed. “We are each other’s biggest critics in a sense, so we want what we show each other to be in the best shape possible. He doesn’t show me what he’s working on until it’s almost as perfect as possible, and I do the same. I respect his opinion too much not to show him my best work. I think he feels that way too.”

Lee’s next project with her ToniK Productions company is the film The Giver, which will star Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. Production starts in South Africa in the next few weeks.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham stars Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, and David Alan Grier. It airs Friday night on the Hallmark Channel at 7 p.m. ET.