Amazon presents its first collaboration with the American Girl franchise with an original tale based on the character Melody Ellison, whose adventures revolve around her deep love of Motown and her dreams of music stardom. This special is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video and is a brave departure from AG’s typically frothy tales, and focuses on Melody’s experience as part of the Civil Rights movement as a child of color.
Melody 1963 centers around a 10-year-old girl Melody whose innocent eyes are opened to the racial inequality surrounding her, including bullying by peers, her mother’s mistreatment at work, and the Birmingham Church Bombing. And despite the injustice that Melody sees, she learns to fight hatred with love.
I spoke with the film’s writer and executive producer, Alison McDonald, about the difficulty of the film’s subject matter (but there are plenty of light, funny moments too), and she reminded me that difficult topics are presented throughout great works of children’s literature. She pointed to Roald Dalh and J.K. Rowling as examples of two writers who challenge children with weighty issues and hard truths. “If kids can follow Harry Potter, they can follow this,” says McDonald. “We don’t have the spectacle of magic, which of course is irresistible, but in terms of themes, in terms of confronting a hostile world, it’s really similar territory.”
“With that as my guide,” explains McDonald, “I decided that I wanted to tell an engaging story and I wanted to create a multifaceted protagonist, one that — as she was African-American — hardly exists in popular culture.” McDonald adds, “I knew that if I calibrated her character right, that the bigotry that she encounters, the negation that she experiences … the audience would certainly be able to identify with her sense of alienation and frustration and hopelessness, but they would also celebrate her triumphs, ultimately.” McDonald sees Melody 1963 as a tool for parents to start an age-appropriate dialogue with their children about race and civil rights.
McDonald muses, “I think it will be instructive for the audience, that will be comprised mainly of young girls, to see the parallels between today and the past and to use it as an opportunity to engage with their parents, and engage with their schools, and engage with their peers, and question how we treat one another.”
In the special, Melody learns the power of her own her own voice and uses it to question inequity and preach love and equality. McDonald hopes the film will inspire girls to speak out when they see injustice and know the power of their own voices. Fearless girls who stand up to injustice are a hallmark of the American Girl brand.
And providing the fearless face in the film is Melody Ellison, jubilantly played by black-ish star, Marsai Martin. Carrying a film based on civil rights seems a tough task for a child, but Martin does it with passion and joy. “She’s such an extraordinary human being,’ McDonald gushes. “I cannot overstate what a joy it was to work with her.” Martin has a spellbinding ability to create a character who is both curious and vulnerable, but also ferociously brave. McDonald says, “You know, they say, ‘The star sets the tone.’ And even when that star is ten years old, it’s the truth. She couldn’t have been more gracious and more collaborative … It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.” It is high, but warranted praise for Martin; her grace in this role highlights her status as a truly special actress. She is a joy to watch and creates a brave and compassionate character that viewers will love.
This film is an excellent first step in introducing children to the Civil Rights movement and touches on race-based issues that still — unfortunately — exist today. I would have no problem watching Melody 1963 with my 9-year-old son because I know it will open a dialogue between us and foster a trip to the library for more information. I applaud Amazon and American Girl for allowing these characters to step out of the pages of history and exude a new level of historical messaging to their audience.
An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win also stars Frances Fisher, Frankie Faison and Idara Victor and is produced by Common. Melody 1963 is the first of four films planned between Amazon and American Girl; each film will focus on one of the franchise’s signature characters. Which other AG characters would you like to see come to life?
An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win > Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video