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She Definitely "Has It" - Tonya Lewis Lee Is A Fighter And Art Is Her Weapon

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Thursday, July 18, 2019

“I do think of my art as my activism,” says Tonya Lewis Lee early in our conversation—and it’s clear this core belief infuses all aspects of the many kinds of work she does. Whether as a producer, writer or entrepreneur, Lee is deeply committed to the power of telling stories that matter. “I’m very fortunate in that I am mostly able to pick and choose the kind of work that I want to be doing,” she says. “I do it with the intention of trying to make the world a better place, of trying to raise awareness and consciousness—especially around issues of race, issues of gender, equity, of health and wellness.


Lee has most recently been shining light on those topics through her work as executive producer for the second season of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, created and directed by Spike Lee (who is, yes, also her husband). The first season, released in 2017, was based on his 1986 film of the same name. Revolving around Brooklyn-based Nola Darling and her relationships with friends and multiple lovers, the film was groundbreaking in its depiction of an independent, sexually liberated Black woman. The second season continues to follow Nola, now grappling with artistic success and trying to balance her ideals with the demands of the corporate world.


While the first season adhered closely to the film, the second branches out, as we “go into Nola’s world and see where she leads us,” Lee says. “For me, it was just really fun to think about and look at a young woman who’s an artist and how an artist figures out how to make it today.  Being an artist is not an easy thing, especially when you’re first starting out.”


The show digs into the difficulty of balancing creative idealism on the one hand with commercial success on the other, asking, “Can you legitimately make money on your art and be true to yourself as an artist, or are you selling out to the corporate structure?”


For Lee, the two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially in terms of access and reach. “I want [my work] to have commercial success because that means it’s reaching as many people as possible,” she says. That matters to Lee because the projects she works on provide complex, nuanced depictions of people of color—something she believes there should be more of. “Looking at television, looking at film, is how we are informed about who we are, what’s happening in our world,” she explains. “Seeing my children see themselves in this world, this majority-white world that we live in, through television, through books, I realized there weren’t enough books I was able to read that featured kids that looked like them or TV shows with kids that looked like them,” she says. “I want to be contributing to that in the best way possible, as much as I can.”


As another way of bringing politics into art, She’s Gotta Have It also dives into issues of gentrification, something apparent in a Brooklyn that has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the film was released. “Sometimes when I still go back to Fort Greene, I feel like I’m Rip Van Winkle. It’s unbelievable to me how different it is,” Lee says. She explains that showing the effects of gentrification on communities of color was crucial to the remake of She’s Gotta Have It, in a way that ties back to the idea of art as activism. “It was really important, and continues to be important in the show, to show what gentrification is like and what it’s doing to a community. It’s a serious issue and it’s a serious issue for underserved communities. I don’t know what Brooklyn’s going to be like in another 25 years. I mean, is there a world in which we’re able to work together to keep it at least at this point? Or is it going to be completely whitewashed?”


The series does not provide any miracle solutions to gentrification, but Lee says the show does present “an awareness, an awakening, to where they are”—and awareness is a necessary first step toward change.


Another way Lee is helping bring about change is making sure the She’s Gotta Have It writers’ room features many women, like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (who also produces). Having women on both sides of the camera also matters. While Lee gladly acknowledges that Spike created the character of Nola, she’s been excited by the guidance that women creatives have been able to provide, and what that has brought to the show. “We wanted to put flesh and bones into who she is,” she says of Nola. “And men don’t know what they don’t know,” she adds with a wry smile. “It was really important to have a room full of women—full of strong women—who were willing and unafraid to say what we really thought about what it means to be a young woman today. To Spike’s credit, and the other guys in the room, I think they really came to understand that.”


Helping a director realize the most fleshed-out version of their vision is a large part of what Lee views her work as a producer to be. “A producer’s job is to really be able to listen to a director’s vision, understand what it is they’re really after and figure out how to help them get there,” she explains. Lee was enthusiastic about having that director be, in this case, her husband; while both have been in the business for years, the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It was their first time working together. “We found our groove and how it works, how we work together,” she says. “And I have to say, I really did enjoy it. Even though there were moments, I’m sure, where I was like, I’ll never do this again!” she laughs. In general, Lee’s admiration for her husband’s work and values is apparent, especially in the ways he has opened doors for new, diverse voices. “He’s brought a lot of people with him, and I respect that immensely, and I want to do the same: work with all kinds of people who are trying to do the same kind of work that we’re trying to do.”

 

Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee on location reviewing footage from season 2 of She's Gotta Have It

In order to make more of that kind of work, Lee launched the production company ToniK Productions with her partner, Nikki Silver, in 2012. They have since produced several films, including Monster, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. While producing independently can be challenging, Lee

says there are also rewards. “As independent producers today, it’s not easy. You’re sort of out here on your own,” she explains. “But the flip side of that is that we do get to do the work that we want to do, in the way that we want to do it, with the kind of people we want to do it with. It may take a little longer and be a little harder, but you know, we fight the fight.”


And fighting is important to Lee, in a way that, again, comes back to art as activism. “It’s a battlefield out here,” she says. “What’s my part? How am I fighting? Because it matters to me. The sacrifices that were made for me to be here, matter. And so, what am I doing to further the human race?”


It’s a question that clearly guides the work Lee does away from television and film sets as well. “I joke with friends, especially in these days, we need to be army-fit. Because if someone says run, I better be able to run. I don’t want someone to have to put me on their back. I want to be able to carry my own weight. And I’m a survivor, we all are survivors—we’re here. So, being mentally, physically and spiritually strong is critical,” she says.


Indeed, Lee has been a public health and wellness advocate for many years. In 2009, she produced the documentary Crisis in the Crib, exploring the issues of infant mortality in the United States. She later launched Movita, a wellness brand offering organic vitamin supplements that address the specific needs of women. In addition to advocating for women’s health, Lee also aims to demystify health practices more generally. “The bottom line: eating well, moving your body and getting your sleep is everything. And when you’re young, if you can start doing that and make it become part of a habit, then you can continue to do the work at the level you want to be doing it … for as long as you want to be doing it.”


Lee practices what she preaches: she meditates, eats a mostly vegan diet and exercises regularly. In fact, members of the She’s Gotta Have It crew would frequently encourage each other to go to the gym after wrapping for a day. “I’m like, my god, if the camera operator can be in the gym after he’s been holding that camera all day, then I should be able to do that!” she says with a smile—though not for vanity’s sake. In addition to the practicality of taking care of one’s body for career longevity, Lee insists that self-care has a political component. She admires writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde and cites her quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


“I do love that, because again, it goes back to art as activism,” she says. As part of that self-care, Lee says she is also working on “going with the flow of life” and not letting herself get stressed about intense production schedules. “I try really hard to be kind to myself,” she says. “I’m at an age where I know what I can deal with and what I can’t. And if I can’t,  I’m not going to deal with that.”


As for other words of wisdom, “My advice for producers would be find your team, find your people,” she says. “I think it’s great to have collaborative partnerships, people that you trust, who you build relationships with, who you enjoy working with.” She also says to remember that things take a long time: “Never give up. You just gotta hang in there. And if it doesn’t work one way, you’ve got to figure out another way.”

 

 

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