Former trustee Tonya Lewis Lee ’88 has devoted much of her professional life to trying to increase the presence of people of color in mainstream media, partly through her company, Madstone. A lawyer and producer for Nickelodeon and Noggin, in 2002 she co-wrote a children’s book, Please, Baby, Please, about a rambunctious toddler, with her husband, filmmaker Spike Lee. The mother of two young children, Lewis Lee has also co-written Gotham Diaries, about African-American social climbers in New York City, which is scheduled to be published in 2004.
Sarah Lawrence: How much of a challenge is it to think about diversity, along with finance and sales and artistic creativity?
Tonya Lewis Lee: For me, it’s a challenge. Not every character I create is African-American, but as an African-American woman, I am interested in doing work about African-American people. It's a challenge: Often people don’t really understand what the “African-American” experience is. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about what it means to be black today; sometimes it’s hard to get people to think out of that box and understand that not all black people are rappers or ballplayers.
I have been really lucky that the people I work with are forward-thinking and want to do something fresh. The work I did at Nickelodeon through Madstone for Black History Month was great, because I got to do things that didn’t feel like the typical Black History Month stuff. And Gotham Diaries, the book that I co-wrote, is about the African-American elite in New York City. We were lucky enough to get a publisher who really responded to our work and understood that there is this African-American elite class here in New York City, and that they are just regular people.
Has being a parent factored into your determination to work towards broader multicultural representation in media?
Having kids has made me feel like I want to do work that represents the African-American experience in a diverse way. Children’s television has changed a whole lot from when I was a kid. There were maybe three or four shows we could watch. Now, it’s just constant programming for kids. It’s gotten better in the last five to seven years, but there never was really that much that featured African-American kids.
At what age do you think non- Caucasian children pick up that relatively few people who look like them are found in popular entertainment?
I think it happens really early, by the time they’re two. That’s when my daughter, who is very fair-complexioned, made a point of noting her skin color, saying that she was “gray.” My son was three when he discovered he was brown. He said to me, “Mommy, people get darker in the sun.” And I said, “You mean they tan.” And he said, “I’m already tan.” And I said, “Oh, you mean you’re brown.” And he stood there, touching his face, saying, “I’m brown. I’m brown.” As a parent, I didn’t know how to take it; I didn’t know how he was feeling about it. So I just said, “Yes, you’re brown,” and I left it alone. A few days later he said, “I love brown. It’s my favorite color.” I said, “Whew!” My husband and I have made a conscious effort to buy books that are about African-American children, so that when my children pick up books or we read to them, they see brown skin.
Why do you think non-white performers are underrepresented in mainstream media?
I think it’s a white-dominated culture to begin with. Then there are the people who say they look at the numbers and that African-American people don’t buy. But that’s not true: All the statistics reflect how much discretionary money African-Americans spend on entertaining their children. I think it’s a hard business to crack. And I think it’s sometimes difficult for executives to get an opportunity to meet young African-American talent and trust them and develop them— to go for it.
How do you appeal to entertainment companies to create more representative fare—what might be called a moral crusade—when they are so driven by financial considerations?
It’s a matter of being tenacious—staying on it and working really hard. For me, I’m developing my craft as a writer and as a producer so that I can do the work. For instance, we originally pitched Gotham Diaries as a television series. Then September 11th happened, and people in the entertainment business weren’t sure how they were going to treat New York. But we were determined to get this story out there. We always felt it could be a good book anyway, so we sat down and wrote it as a novel. That may be another way to bring it around and do television at some point with it. Sometimes it takes smaller projects, little baby steps, until you can get to the bigger picture.
In a 1999 article for Glamour on NBC’s programming, you wrote, “Six out of the 10 top-rated shows in the 1974-75 season either starred minorities or regularly dealt with issues of race…. [But in 1999] African-Americans compose[d] a mere 10 percent of the characters on last season’s lineup.” Have things picked up since then?
I think it has gotten better. There was a lot of noise then about there being so little representation of African-Americans on TV, and networks probably felt a lot of pressure to respond to that. And the change has come in network television, with sitcoms. Looking out into cable and into dramatic television, I don’t think things have changed all that much. On Showtime there’s “Soul Food,” but there are very few dramatic series that feature African-American people, unless they’re related to prison or selling drugs, which is disturbing to me. There are so few things that are dramatic and smart. But maybe that’s coming; maybe Gotham Diaries will help change that.
Is book publishing more receptive to minority voices than TV or the movies?
Well, it doesn’t cost as much to publish a book as it does to make a series on TV, so publishers can take a little more risk. But it’s tough in publishing, too. Crystal McCrary Anthony and I were able to write our novel and then sell it. We didn’t sell them on an idea; we wrote the novel first. If I had to go out and cast a show with great actors and shoot it well, I couldn’t afford to do that.