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I started out as a lawyer with a passion to improve society, using words to advocate for my clients and fight unjust systems. I always knew the power of storytelling, but it would be years before I found my place in the film industry. Raising two young Black children, I saw a need for better stories reflecting the dynamism of Black and Brown people. I was also fortunate to be connected to the industry through my husband’s influential work, which gave me special insight on the stories the public has access to — and the obstacles to getting important projects greenlit. After collaborating on several film projects, and authoring a series of children’s books, I decided to shift my career from law to the arts — first developing content for children and eventually producing long-form TV and film.
The popularity of my children’s books granted me an opportunity to serve as the national spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health’s “A Healthy Baby Begins With You” infant mortality awareness campaign from 2007 to 2013. Touring the country, I witnessed women and children, many of whom looked like my family but lacked essential health resources. Mothers were leaving the hospital without their babies and families were being denied their dignity. The lawyer and mother in me could not tolerate a healthcare system that brazenly allowed Black women and babies to die from avoidable causes. I used my voice to talk about these issues — became a Trustee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the March of Dimes — and created a vitamin company to support women’s health, but I knew more needed to be done to tell this story and sound the alarm on this national crisis.
Co-directing and producing my latest documentary project, Aftershock, was the culmination of all these experiences — from practicing law and advocacy to motherhood and filmmaking — and it came about through divine timing. I met fellow filmmaker Paula Eiselt in 2019 at a women’s conference in Brooklyn. We were both planning on making documentaries on Black maternal healthcare, and we recognized the strength a partnership could bring to bear. Together as co-directors, we knew the project would be approached with proper care, showing audiences the all-too-real experience of the maternal mortality crisis plaguing Black and Brown women in America. We also knew if it were done right, it would help save lives.
Aftershock examines the tragic implications of a healthcare system that neglects maternity patients in distress seeking help. By exploring the issue from a place of empathy, we hoped to grab the attention of Americans of every background and stir a national call to action. From an often-overlooked perspective, the documentary follows two families — Shawnee Benton Gibson and Omari Maynard, and Bruce McIntyre III — left to raise children without their mothers due to preventable childbirth complications. We spoke to doctors, midwives, and doulas taking on the healthcare system by providing proper care and resources to women and families, as well as leaders of national efforts to change these adverse circumstances. Our goal was not to induce fear but to incite hope and galvanize viewers.
After the documentary premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, we saw first-hand how much the families’ stories resonated with audiences. At Sundance, we won the Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. And soon after, Hulu’s Onyx Collective and ABC News acquired the film and slated it for a summertime release. As we prepared for a large-scale rollout, the need for Aftershock to serve as a catalyst for change became even more urgent when our nation’s highest court declared that women would no longer have autonomy over their bodies with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The decision, giving states the right to rescind abortion rights, set off a wave of chaos and placed female patients and medical practitioners in the crosshairs of political extremism.
Aftershock’s release became part of national conversations about Roe, and — as we continue to see in recent news reports — the situation is worsening for Black and Brown women. In mid-October, The March of Dimes’ released a study stating that “access to maternity care is decreasing in the parts of the U.S. that need it the most, affecting nearly 7 million women of childbearing age and some 500,000 babies.” Texas delayed the release of its 2022 maternal mortality rates, taking the issue off of the legislative agenda until 2023 and keeping countless women and babies at risk. And new data on assisted reproduction indicates that the disparity in care is “even larger when [Black] babies are conceived by in vitro fertilization or other … technology,” indicating that Black Americans at all income levels are vulnerable to unjust maternal healthcare systems.
With so much at stake for women across the country, we are determined for the film to reach as many women and healthcare providers as possible. And since releasing the film, we have received requests to meet with Employee Resource Groups of major healthcare and insurance corporations, as well as students and faculty at our nation’s top medical schools — all of whom are empowered to confront these issues head-on. The documentary set the stage for the 2022 National Maternal and Infant Health Summit hosted by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
It was shown during the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference. And we spoke on behalf of the film at the United Nations General Assembly, among other convenings. Aftershock has been profiled across the media and we continue activating nationally to increase awareness and empower every group of people possible – from hosting local impact screenings with doulas, midwives, and medical practitioners to campaigning for high-level awards in Hollywood.
Approaching the midterm elections, our call to action has become more urgent: encourage women to explore their maternal health options, and ensure their health concerns and requests are acknowledged; hold healthcare authorities accountable for the quality of care they provide; and compel people to vote for federal, state and local representatives who enact legislation that supports, not harms us.
This film and its early impact reflect the powerful combination of creativity and a cause. My artistic voice met a new purpose in Aftershock and fighting for the humanity of Black and Brown women is only the beginning. If we as a society can become more empathetic as listeners, more empowered as storytellers, and more active as voters, we can build a framework for a life in which everyone has access to the healthcare and respect that they deserve. Let’s tell the hard stories and make sure everybody sees them while changing our world for the better.
Tonya Lewis Lee is a producer, film director, writer, entrepreneur, and women’s health advocate, delivering meaningful content, for more than 20 years, that resonates with marginalized communities and explores the personal impact of social justice issues. Lee’s film and TV work span documentaries like Aftershock (Hulu) and family-friendly features like The Watsons Go To Birmingham (Hallmark Channel), as well as the episodic series She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix) and Monster (Netflix). Lee is an acclaimed author of children’s and young adult books — including bestseller Please, Baby, Please with husband Spike Lee — and she founded the premium vitamin supplement brand Movita Organics to foster better health outcomes for women.
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