DETROIT — In 1963 Detroit, a 10-year-old girl named Melody is facing the realities of being black in America. She sees schools in her neighborhood that don't have enough books for every student. She hears a white boy tell her to go back to Africa. When she goes to a department store, she is accused of shoplifting just for taking a dress off of a rack to look at it.
This is real, bracing history told in a family-friendly way through a TV special inspired by a doll.
An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win, debuted Friday on Amazon Prime. It stars Marsai Martin (who plays Diane Johnson on ABC's Black-ish) as an inquisitive, creative child who finds a way to confront the racism of her world.
"Fear brings out the worst in us, but love brings out the best,” says Melody's mother (Idara Victor of AMC's TURN: Washington's Spies), summarizing the uplifting message of the special's narrative. But there's no after-school-special condescension to the story by screenwriter Alison McDonald (who's also an executive producer along with Common's Freedom Road Productions and Christopher Keenan and Melinda McCrocklin for American Girl).
Melody 1963 isn't just an educational trip back in time. It draws obvious parallels between the inequalities that existed then and persist now. The narrative isn't afraid to encourage conversation between parents and children about how Melody's journey is relevant to today.
“The challenges that young children of color, specifically African-America children, face are not all that different (now)," says McDonald. "Their parents have to find a way to speak to them and contextualize issues … so the world doesn’t seem too daunting."
The American Girl doll, Melody, was introduced to the public in August.
The Melody character was developed with much care for historical accuracy by the American Girl company, which consulted with an advisory board of historical experts, civil rights figures and others. The story for the Melody doll was inspired in part by the childhood of one of those advisers, former Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson.
Although the Melody 1963 special was filmed in Los Angeles, it is set in Detroit and contains several Detroit-themed touches. “Let’s play Martha and the Vandellas!,” Melody suggests to friends and neighbors in an early scene that references Motown music.
The streaming site's special, directed by Tina Mabry (OWN's Queen Sugar), portrays Melody's everyday life with her mother, a talented pianist who must support her family as a seamstress, and her grandfather, who worries about Melody's youthful idealism. Over the course of the story, Melody hears about the real-life 1963 Birmingham church bombing, which killed four little girls, and must deal with the anger and fear evoked by the tragedy. Together, Melody and her mother courageously do something that's both a strong statement and a step toward healing.
McDonald, whose credits include the 2016 reboot of Roots, says she wanted the relationship between Melody and her mother to be a focal point of the screenplay because she missed those kinds of stories when she was growing up.
"I thought, there hasn’t really been a love story between an African-American woman and a daughter. I would have loved to have seen that.”
McDonald's screenplay evolved during the research process, particularly where Melody's elementary school was concerned. Her original idea was to create an integrated school that would be more of a haven for Melody. But when she consulted with Thomas Sugrue of New York University, the historian and native Detroiter informed her that the majority of black students in 1960s Detroit went to schools where 90% or more of their classmates were black.
She recalls Sugrue's message that things were pretty much "separate and unequal.”
McDonald then revised her plan and put Melody in a predominantly white elementary school that her mother wants her to attend because it offers better educational opportunities. There, she's ignored by most students and bullied by some for being black.
"I wanted the families watching this to really understand what the children were up against," she says. "It was just that society was engineered for your failure. You have to imagine the psychological impact on a child."
McDonald praises Martin for her captivating performance as Melody. While reading a magazine interview with young TV actors before the special was cast, she was struck by how Martin seemed to be “a child with a great deal of awareness and confidence, but very much an authentic kid.” McDonald says she has worked with few actors of any age who’ve been more committed, disciplined and delightful than Martin is.
Four American Girl specials are planned in concert with Amazon — two with Melody’s character and two with a 2015 doll, Maryellen Larkin, whose character is based in 1953 Daytona Beach, Fla.
“If this special can get (children) to be more reflective about their own immediate environment, whether it’s their family or the wider circle of school or the (even) wider circle of what they see in their town, it’s a wonderful opportunity,” McDonald says. "You can love your pretty doll and be empowered to see things in your world and think about what you see. Just the questioning is the first step.”
Follow Julie Hinds on Twitter: @juliehinds