Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Tonya Lewis Lee is the wife of famed director Spike Lee, but she’s got her own. The former attorney turned writer turned producer is gaining power in Hollywood, she’s doing it on her own accord, and she’s got some impressive projects up her sleeve.
First up is The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a TV movie premiering on the Hallmark Channel this week. Lee also wrote the screenplay adaptation from the Christopher Paul Curtis novel released in 1995 about an African-American family set in 1963 Birmingham.
And her famous hubby’s reaction to the finished project? (She refused to let him near it until it was all done.) Let’s just say their partnership may be heading to a big screen near you one of these days.
EBONY: Why production as opposed to directing?
Tonya Lewis Lee: I love the collaborative effort of producing. I love bringing the pieces together to make it happen, and finding all of the different people to fill the roles. A director does that similarly, but there’s something about producing and problem-solving. I think being a lawyer certainly helps me in that regard. Producing is about problem-solving and it really suits me.
EBONY: Not to take anything away from directors, but producers have the power. And a Black woman with the power…
TLL: It’s interesting. I do think there are a few Black women who are definitely succeeding in a big way in television series. I still think that we are not represented enough. It still feels like the White man’s medium. But there are some women who have broken through, and I love what [Scandal creator] Shonda Rhimes has done with her work. I’m so excited and inspired by her. And I think what [TV writer-producer] Mara Brock Akil and [director] Salim Akil are doing is great as well. I look to both of them as inspiration, because I definitely look forward to being in that space myself at some point.
EBONY: As a producer, what made you want to bring this particular film to light?
TLL: I love what Christopher Paul Curtis does as a novelist. I read The Watsons Go to Birmingham out loud with my children when they were much younger. What’s so great about the book is, it really focuses in on the family and the family dynamics. You have these parents who are really parenting a teenager, and having teenagers myself, I know that parenting teenagers is not an easy thing! And they’re trying to figure out what to do with this child that is driving them and their entire family crazy.
I like to think about ways to make history relevant and interesting to young people. This just seemed to be the perfect mix of family dynamics that everyone could relate to, coupled with a little bit of a history lesson, and hopefully told the right way [that] doesn’t feel like a lesson.
EBONY: Is there any particular reason why the film is coming out in September as opposed to, say, February, when we typically see an influx of films along this line?
TLL: It’s the beginning of the school year, and this is a book that is read widely in schools across the country. So there is an educational component, a teacher’s guide if you will, for educators to use in teaching the book and the film. It just happens to be the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15. So it is sort of commemorating that bombing as well.
EBONY: Black folks tend to groan at seeing these types of films sometimes. It was such a painful past and not everyone likes to be reminded of these unpleasant times.
TLL: We don’t like to be reminded often of what is painful, but the fact is that we are where we are because of our history. We have to remember to be vigilant, and we have to remember where we came from to understand why we are here today.
EBONY: I’ve read that you and your husband are each other’s biggest critics. Did you dare ask him what he thought about the final product?
TLL: Yes, I did. And he didn’t see it until it was completely done. I didn’t want to show it to him until I had it in the best shape it could possibly be in, and I got the best compliment that I could ever have gotten from him. The response was, “You and I need to work on something together. You write it, I’ll direct it.”
EBONY: Nice! Will this be a reality soon?
TLL: Well, we’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.
EBONY: Your son Jackson and your husband recently graced EBONY for the Trayvon Martin covers. This was a serious topic, but is he interested in the family business at all?
TLL: Such an impactful cover! I don’t know what exactly [Jackson Lee] is going to do. But I have to say, he does have that kind of charm and charisma, so we’ll see. I don’t think that will be the last time you’ll see him on the cover of a magazine. We’ve got to get him through high school first.
EBONY: So you all don’t care if the kids follow suit, then?
TLL: Oh, no! It’s fantastic. My daughter [Satchel] just went off to college this year. She’s studying film and TV, and I am so excited for her. She doesn’t know what she wants to do in the business, but she wants to tell stories. She has a great voice and a unique perspective. And I think when she figures out how she’s going to do it, we’re all going to be better for it.