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Tonya Lewis Lee Spotlights the Black Maternal-Health Crisis With Aftershock

Photo: Onyx Collective

Tonya Lewis Lee knows that a world of possibility exists within meaningful storytelling. A good story’s capacity to open hearts, enhance a person’s quality of life with knowledge, and provoke long-lasting change are at the heart of her new film, Aftershock, which she co-directed and co-produced with Paula Eiselt during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The harrowing documentary, which centers on two families, explores the ongoing Black maternal-health crisis: Black mothers dying before, during, or after giving birth at alarming rates as a result of neglect, having their health concerns dismissed, and a host of other preventable issues rooted in anti-Black racism within the medical field.

“I hope for Black women that, when you see the film, we can start thinking about what a truly woman-centered supported birth looks like and how we can access that for ourselves so that we can have a dignified and safe birth,” says Lee. This passion and commitment to health advocacy has materialized in a myriad of ways through Lee’s professional and artistic career: creating Movita Organics, a line of vitamins and a community focused on supporting women through their wellness journeys; penning multiple best-selling children’s books, including Please, Baby, Please; partnering with the Department of Health as a national spokesperson and traveling the country for its infant-mortality awareness campaign; and producing a number of TV and film projects that tackle pressing social issues linked to quality of life.

Here, Lee discusses the challenges of immersing herself in an emotionally painful project without burning out, why turning to art for health advocacy fulfills her, and the importance of leaving viewers with more than grief.

Aftershock puts the spotlight on a deeply important matter — the ongoing Black maternal-health crisis — but it is not an easy watch. It hit so close to home, watching it as a Black woman. What was the experience like for you, living with the film for over two years when grief, death, and systemic racism are such major themes?

It was a very sobering process because we’re telling the story of two women, Shamony Makeba Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, who passed away. Two beautiful Black women who should be here now raising their children. Shamony’s sister was the family videographer, if you will, and an aspiring filmmaker, so she had lots of archival footage of her. It was really wonderful getting to know Shamony through the archival footage, and yet I still mourned her loss. There were times when it did get very emotional and I would break down in tears.

Looking at Shamony’s mother, Shawnee; her partner, Omari Maynard; and Amber’s partner, Bruce McIntyre III, and how they were able to turn their grief, that eternal love — which is what I’ve learned through them, that grief is really about love — into action for not only their families but for our entire community really inspired me and continued to uplift me. All of their grace and their generosity with their story and their pain made me feel a serious responsibility to make sure we were telling the story in the right way.

Self-care is also everything. It really became about taking care of myself, exercising most days of the week, eating really well, going to sleep at night, even establishing boundaries with the film and with my colleagues in making the film. I couldn’t be on the phone all night long; there’s got to be a cutoff so I can fill my cup back up again so I can go back in and do the work and really take a moment to take a step away from it when I can. It was intense but amazingly gratifying to be able to make a film like this with these people.

Something that stuck with me from the film was when one of the grieving mothers, Shawnee Benton, talks about her background in reproductive justice and how being aware and knowledgeable doesn’t always save us. We see and feel the grief of the families in the film up close, but we also see how that grief is transformed into power and connection within their community. Can you talk about finding a balance for the film that allows viewers to walk away with hope and some tools in their toolbox instead of solely grief?

Absolutely. We were very, very intentional in making sure that the film did have a sense of hope and inspiration. The last thing I want people to come away from this film with is a sense of fear of giving birth. I want Black women to be excited for that and Black families to be excited about creating their families and bringing their children into the world. As Helena Grant has said, “When a woman is birthing a baby, she’s not just birthing a baby, she’s birthing a mother.” I think there’s something about being able to go through the process of that birth, if you are able to, where, when you come out on the other side with your baby, you can do almost anything.

At the same time, we do need to be in conversation about what’s happening in our communities. As a community, how do we create an environment for better birth outcomes? Because if we don’t talk about it, we won’t get there. We were very fortunate that we were able to follow Felicia Ellis and her birthing experience in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to really show us what a supported birth really looks like.

I definitely hear about and see more Black people leaning on doulas, considering home births, and exploring what a safe, supportive, loving birth experience can look like — which of course, looks different for each person.

Totally. It’s such an individualized situation. That’s the key: What might be right for you and your birthing situation might not be right for the next person, and that’s really okay. It is your decision to make. I hope that we all figure out our place in trying to improve outcomes. I’m not saying it’s on us, by the way, as Black people — the system really does need to change. There needs to be better education. Doctors, all health-care providers, we need more Black OB/GYNs, we need more Black midwives, we need more doulas, more Black doulas. They need to be paid; they need to be covered by insurance. So there’s a lot there. But we all have to think about what our role is, and it can be as simple as figuring out what’s the best birthing situation for myself.

When looking at your journey, it seems like there’s a consistent through-line of health advocacy through art. I’m not sure if artist is a title you embrace for yourself, but have you always known you wanted to explore health advocacy in a creative way?

I’m a lawyer by trade, and I always admired artists. Most of my friends were artists, but I don’t think I ever, for a long time, allowed myself to dare to suggest that I, too, could be an artist.

That is such a common artist experience, funnily enough.

Now I do see myself as an artist. My daughter found a quote from my high-school yearbook when I was graduating saying what I wanted. I wanted to work in television, I wanted to work behind the camera, I wanted to write, produce, and direct because I wanted to speak to the public through art. I didn’t think that meant I wanted to be an artist.

Storytelling is a way to change hearts and minds and to reach people. I love to read, watch films and TV, and write. I’m also a really big believer in social justice. I want our world to be better than when I got here. So my way of contributing to that is to tell a story and then maybe create a business and some tools.

When you take a step back, do you feel like the different chapters in your life were preparing you for where you are now? Do you have that feeling of, Oh, okay, it was all leading here?

You totally hit the nail on the head. Exactly that. I didn’t come from a family of artists. My parents certainly didn’t understand what that meant. You’re going to work on television? How are you going to make a living? I don’t understand. I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t seen it. I didn’t know. I went to law school to hedge my bets, and I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad I went to law school. I wouldn’t have thought so, but it certainly has helped me to be a producer with a legal background. I would not be where I am right now if I hadn’t done all of the things that I did.

I wouldn’t have met my husband probably if I wasn’t practicing law in Washington, D.C., and wouldn’t have had my children, which wouldn’t have made me think, Maybe I should write a book. Maybe I should write a children’s book. That children’s book is what got the Department of Health and Human Services interested in having me be a spokesperson for the infant-mortality awareness campaign, and out of that campaign comes all of the health-advocacy work, which also brings forth Aftershock and Movita Organics. Life is a journey, and sometimes you just follow the signs and the pathways, and I try to do a little good along the way.

I think one of the really beautiful things about your journey is it’s a reminder that we don’t have to go along with being put in a box. We can change course in life. We can pivot at any stage.

Exactly. That’s the key. Don’t let anyone define you — you define yourself. Sometimes it’s not easy, and people will always tell you what you can’t do. I’ll tell you, too, having children with a husband who was very busy, I did put myself or my career a little on the simmer. I always worked a little bit, but there were times when I had to take a step back from certain things to focus on family, and I don’t regret that at all. I’m grateful that I was able to do that, but it’s stages and phases. Sometimes you go hard, and sometimes you pull back. If you’re always thinking about, What’s the next thing?, and if you’re curious and passionate, the work will come.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Tonya Lewis Lee on Aftershock and Black Maternal Health