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EXCLUSIVE: Anika Noni Rose on the Importance of 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'

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’The Watsons Go to Birmingham’
Anika Noni Rose as Wilona Watson in 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'
Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC/Photographer: Annette Brown

Tonight, Anika Noni Rose and the cast of The Watsons Go to Birmingham take America back to the '60s and the center of the Civil Rights Movement. The film, based on the 1963 book of the same title by Christopher Paul Curtis, follows a Flint, Michigan family as they travel south to visit family members. Their summer in Birmingham is anything but comfortable for the Watsons' three kids, who come face-to-face with racism for the first time.

Rose plays Wilona, whose family they travel to visit. Like her husband and kids, Wilona is forced to face many of the issues that make their stay unnerving. ESSENCE.com caught up with the actress to chat about why she decided to take on this historical-fictional drama and the importance it carries today.

ESSENCE.com: This movie comes at a very pivotal point in our nation's history. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Why did you decide to do the movie?
ANIKA NONI ROSE: I decided to do it because it just felt like a good story and it's an important story and it's also a story that the whole family can sit down and watch. I don't think we have a lot of those right now, so I think that's important. I have a lot of little fans thanks to The Princess and the Frog and it’s nice to give them something else that they can watch and be a part of. All of those things played a part in addition to a wonderful message in the movie.

ESSENCE.com: The movie is based off the book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and it touches upon the 16th Street Church bombings that left four little girls dead.
ROSE: Yes, it does touch on that but the wonderful thing about the movie is that although you do get to be a part of that event, the story allows all ages to be a part of it without turning the movie into a tragedy. The movie plainly shows that there’s so much love in this family, this community and in many people that the movement didn’t stop because of that. If anything, it got stronger and it was catalyst for more people to join and to make more change.

ESSENCE.com: What was the experience like transforming back into the ‘60s?
ROSE: I loved it. I think it’s always fun to do a period piece and I think I fit well in that era. Whenever I see those clothes I’m like "This is me, this is my era!" Those clothes were made for a woman’s body.

ESSENCE.com: What did you grow up hearing about the Civil Rights Movement as a kid?
ROSE: I always heard about the Civil Rights Movement. That was my parents' era. It was something they were part of and my grandmother was part of, so I was always aware of it. A good thing about this movie is that it’s going to make other young people aware of it, too. Maybe because they saw this film, maybe because they read the book, maybe because their parents taught them—or all three of those things. I think it’s really important because it’s a major part of the history of our country. It’s a major part of the growing pains of how America has become America.

ESSENCE.com:  What do you think you’ll teach your children one day about he Civil Rights Movement?
ROSE: I will teach them the facts. There’s enough history in my own family and people I know, and so many amazing books and documentaries that it’s simply a core part of what the history of America is. So it’s important to me to let them know that they come from a strength that tried to be denied. I’m not interested in sugarcoating it.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Hallmark.

PHOTO GALLERY: First Look: Exclusive Images from 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'

  • 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'
  • 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'
  • 'The Watsons Go to Birmingham'
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