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Set visit: "Watsons Go To Birmingham"

Nikki Silver and Tonya Lewis Lee
Jennifer Brett

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"The Watsons Go to Birmingham," a Hallmark Channel movie in the making, takes place in Michigan and Alabama but has been filming here in metro Atlanta. It wraps this week.

The film is a project of ToniK Productions, founded by award-winning producers Nikki Silver and Tonya Lewis Lee, in conjunction with Walden Media and Arc Entertainment. Kenny Leon is directing.

"Watsons" has filmed in Newnan and Marietta and is now in Stone Mountain. We visited the other day.

"One of the things we loved about filming down here was all the different looks," said Silver, noting the metro area's architectural diversity. "We've gotten lucky. It's been a great experience."

The cast includes Bryce Clyde Jenkins, Harrison Knight, Skai Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, David Alan Grier, Shameik Moore, Josephine Lawrence, LaTanya Richardson, Tyrin Niles Wyche, E. Roger Mitchell, Javon Johnson, Margo Moorer, Lori Beth Edgeman and Pauletta Washington. The movie is based on the novel by Christopher Paul Curtis and was written by Lee, who has long envisioned bringing the project to life.

"It's been a 9-year journey," Lee said. "It has been a labor of love."

"Watsons" is about a black family living in Flint, Mich. that travels to Birmingham in 1963. The terrible 16th Street Baptist Church bombing factors in the narrative.

"We have a very diverse crew who really are committed to making sure this story is told," Lee said. "We've become a family. I love everyone on this crew."

Silver and Lee have been friends and colleagues for years, having first teamed up at Nickelodeon.

"The network thought we would be a great team," Silver said. "Little did they know what they started."

The two women have plans to produce other films as well, including ones based on the young adult novels "The Giver" by Lois Lowry and "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers. Nothing's set in stone yet, but it's possible they could film again in Atlanta.

"Atlanta has been wonderful to work in," Lee said. "There are amazing crews here."

She is married to film industry icon Spike Lee, who is an Atlanta native and a Morehouse man, and she said he's encouraged her to pursue a film career, too.

"I am an attorney by trade," Lee said. "When I met Spike I was practicing law. He was very supportive of me spreading my creative wings. I've been very lucky to have a husband who supports my desire to be creative."

Curtis, the author whose novel the movie is based on, was on-set the day we visited, along with his wife Habon and daughters Ebyan, 1, and Ayaan, 2. The sweet little girls climbed all over their daddy while we interviewed him.

"It's really important that young people are aware of the sacrifices that were made for them," Curtis said. He is grateful that his girls are growing up in a time of more opportunity for all people. 

"They will have chances that, 50 years ago, wren't there for them," he said. "My hope is we will instill in them the importance of honoring those who sacrificed." 

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