Entertainment

Tonya Lewis Lee on America’s Maternal Mortality Crisis (Guest column) – The Hollywood Reporter


I started out as a lawyer with a passion for improving society, using words to advocate for my clients and combat unjust systems. I’ve always known the power of storytelling, but it took years before I found my place in the film industry. Raising two black kids, I see a need for better stories that reflect the dynamics of Blacks and Browns. I am also fortunate to be connected to the industry through my husband’s influential work, which has given me exceptional insight into the stories the public can reach – and the obstacles to achieving. important projects. After collaborating on several film projects and authoring a series of children’s books, I decided to switch my career from law to art – first developing children’s content and finally producing. production of television series and feature-length films.

The popularity of my children’s books gave me the opportunity to be the national spokesperson for the infant mortality awareness campaign “A Healthy Baby Begins With You”. US Department of Health from 2007 to 2013. Traveling across the country, I have witnessed many women and children among them who look like my family but lack essential medical resources. Mothers leave the hospital without their children and families are being denied their dignity. The attorney and mother in me cannot tolerate a health care system that has allowed black women and babies to die of avoidable causes. I used my voice to talk about these issues – became a Trustee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Foundation and the March of Dimes – and founded a vitamin company to support women’s health , but I know more needs to be done to tell this story and raise the alarm about this national crisis.

Co-directing and producing my latest documentary project, Aftershocks, is the culmination of all these experiences — from practicing law and advocacy to motherhood and filmmaking — and it comes about by divine timing. I met fellow filmmaker Paula Eiselt in 2019 at a women’s conference in Brooklyn. We both plan to make documentaries about black maternal health care, and we recognize the power that a partnership can bring. As co-directors, we knew the project would be approached with appropriate care, showing audiences a completely real-life experience of the maternal mortality crisis that is happening to women. Black and Brown in America. We also know if it’s done right, it helps save lives.

Aftershocks examines the tragic consequences of a health care system that ignores maternity patients in distress seeking help. By exploring the issue from a place of empathy, we hope to capture the attention of Americans of all backgrounds and stir the nation’s call to action. From an often overlooked perspective, the documentary follows two families – Shawnee Benton Gibson and Omari Maynard, and Bruce McIntyre III – who must raise their children without a mother due to preventable birth complications. Okay. We spoke to doctors, midwives, and doulas about the health care system by providing appropriate care and resources to women and families, as well as effort leaders. national force to change these adverse circumstances. Our goal is not to cause fear but to incite hope and encourage viewers.

Felicia Ellis - Theme - Aftershock documentary - Maternal health care - United States

Felicia Ellis’ childbirth experience is one of the stories told in Aftershock.

Courtesy of Onyx Collective

After the documentary premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, we got to see first-hand how the family’s story resonated with audiences. At Sundance, we won the Special Jury Prize for Impact for Change. And soon after, Hulu’s Onyx Collective and ABC News bought the movie and it’s slated for a summer release. As we prepare for large-scale deployment, the demand Aftershocks To catalyze change became all the 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. This decision, which gave states the right to abolish abortion rights, caused a wave of chaos and placed female patients and medical doctors on the cross of political extremism.

AftershocksThe release has become part of national conversations about Roe, and – as we continue to see in recent news releases – the situation is getting worse for Black and Brown women. . In mid-October, The March of Dimes’ published a study stating that “access to maternity care is declining in the areas most in need of maternity care in the United States, affecting nearly 7 million women of childbearing age and about 500,000 babies.” Texas has delayed publishing the maternal mortality rate for 2022, putting the issue off the legislative agenda until 2023 and putting countless women and babies at risk. And new data on assisted reproduction indicates that care disparities are “even larger when [Black] children conceived by in vitro fertilization or other technology…,” indicating that black Americans of all incomes are vulnerable to unfair maternal health care systems. plain.

With so many women across the country at stake, we were determined to make the film reach as many women and health care providers as possible. And since the film’s release, we’ve been receiving requests to meet with the Staff Teams of major insurance and healthcare corporations, as well as students and faculty at the nation’s top medical schools. We are all empowered to confront these issues head-on. The documentary set the stage for the 2022 National Summit on Maternal and Newborn Health hosted by Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser.

It was shown during the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Assembly. And we spoke on behalf of the film at the United Nations General Assembly, among other convenings. Aftershocks has been featured in the media and we continue to work nationally to raise awareness and empower every group of people we can – from hosting local impact screenings with doulas, women Midwives and medical doctors come to campaign for high-profile Hollywood awards. We continue to work around the country to raise awareness, from hosting local impact screenings featuring doulas, midwives and doctors to campaigning for high-profile Hollywood accolades.

Directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt - Filming on set - Aftershocks - Documentary about maternal health care

Aftershock co-directed Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt on set.

Yuby Hernandez / Courtesy of Onyx Collective

As we approach the midterm elections, our call to action becomes more urgent: encouraging women to explore their maternal health options, and addressing health concerns and claims their health is acknowledged; hold health authorities accountable for the quality of care they provide; and force people to vote for federal, state, and local representatives who make laws that support, do no harm to us.

This film and its original impact reflect a powerful combination of creativity and justice. My artistic voice fulfills a new purpose in Aftershock and Black and Brown women’s fight for humanity is just the beginning. If we as a society can become more empathetic as listeners, more empowered as storytellers and more active as voters, then we can build building a framework for a life in which everyone has access to the health care and respect they deserve. Tell hard stories and make sure everyone sees them while changing our world for the better.

Tonya Lee Lewis is a producer, film director, writer, entrepreneur, and women’s health advocate, delivering meaningful content that has, for over 20 years, resonated with underprivileged communities and explore the individual impact of social justice issues. Lee’s films and television work span documentaries such as Aftershocks (Hulu) and family-friendly features like The Watsons to Birmingham (Hallmark Channel), as well as the series She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix) and Monster (Netflix). Lee is a popular author of children’s and teen books – including bestsellers Please, Baby, Please with her husband Spike Lee – and she founded the premium vitamin supplement brand Movita Organics to promote better women’s health.

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