TV producer and wellness advocate Tonya Lewis Lee tells Moneyish about remaking ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ on Netflix with her director husband and speaking out for women of color
Tonya Lewis Lee already has it.
More than three decades ago, Spike Lee made his cinematic debut with “She’s Gotta Have It.” Filmed in black-and-white, the film told the story of a 20-something woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggling three lovers and fending off sexual violence in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Long before terms like “ethical polyamory” and #metoo made their way into popular discourse, the provocative drama grossed $7.13 million at the box office on a reported budget of $175,000 and netted Lee an accolade at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.
On Nov 23, Netflix is dropping a remake of the classic with Lee directing and his wife, Lewis Lee, as an executive producer. A filmmaker in her own right, the 51-year-old Lewis Lee has worked on civil rights docudramas like the Hallmark adaptation of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.” And according to the “Inside Man” auteur, it was his wife that pushed him to update the film as 10 TV-length episodes in full color.
“We were already having this conversation [31 years ago] but it’s now on a bigger platform and part of a bigger conversation about women and sexual harassment,” Lewis Lee tells Moneyish. “It’s remarkable time. Here we are, and the show is as relevant and fresh as it was then. How great to be a woman and explore the life of [lead character] Nola Darling fully instead of in just 86 minutes.”
In the updated version, Darling is played by “Shots Fired” star DeWanda Wise, with “Transparent’s” Cleo Anthony as one of her three male counterparts. (IRL street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who created anti-harassment works with slogans like “My Name Isn’t Baby” inspired the 2017 lead.) Gone is the Greenpoint that was a thriving African-American artistic community; in its place, a squeaky clean neighborhood with cafes serving $16 avocado toast brunch. “The show also deals with gentrification in Brooklyn right now,” she says. “The communities bunch up against each other and it’s kind of fun. It’s a great conversation that we weren’t having 30 years ago.”
Educated at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Virginia, Lewis Lee worked as a corporate attorney before switching into the world of media. She’s made children programs for the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon, as well as harder hitting fare like a documentary into the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that desegregated American classrooms. “I have a production company of my own and our children are grown, so Spike and I thought it would be fun to work together” again, she says.
She’s also long been interested in wellness as it applies to African American women like herself. When Goop was still only part of Gwyneth Paltrow’s imagination in 2007, Lewis Lee founded Healthy You Now, a health and lifestyle website that still operates today and partners with advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood. (Sample headline: “Will birth control ever be a shared responsibility with our men?”) She’s also the founder of Movita, which makes organic and gluten-free probiotic vitamins for women.
“Good health is unfortunately a luxury,” Lewis Lee says, adding that this is especially so for black women, who suffer from significant income disparities. According to 2016 Census Bureau data, women were 35% more likely than men to live in poverty, and African-American females the likeliest among all women to do so. “I’m a woman and I work really hard and I know that if I take care of my biology, I’m a better businesswoman. I’m always looking for a leg-up for my audience.”
And since working class women do the majority of grocery shopping in the United States— a 2013 survey estimates that females handle two-thirds of such chores— there’s a trickle down effect when she is convinced to buy healthy. “When you talk about women’s health, we talk about family health,” she says. “Women set the tone in the house. We start with them and trickle into the entire family.”
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