PARK CITY, UTAH — Tomorrow is a big day for Tonya Lewis Lee and her team: the January 22 premiere of Monster happens at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s one of the most anticipated films in Park City. That makes her nervous — “It’s like [people] haven’t seen the movie yet! How do [they] know?!” — but it most certainly also makes her feel good.
Monster is a film that she’s been hoping to get made for a dozen years. There have been a bunch of starts and stops and finally, here we are. The cast is stellar: Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are all part of the film, and it’s helmed by Anthony Mandler in his directorial debut. Mandler is best known for his frequent video collaborations with with Rihanna, and has also collaborated on video projects with Jay Z, Beyoncé, Usher, and Lana Del Ray, among many others. The script is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers, and was written for the screen by by Hampton University’s own Cole C. Wiley and award-winning playwright Janece Shaffer.
And the film’s concept feels very ripped from today’s headlines.
“It’s about a 17-year-old black boy who makes one bad decision and is looking at, potentially, his life being thrown away forever,” Lewis Lee says, while sitting in a Park City gallery, one of the many spaces brands have taken over for the duration of the festival. “For me, I have children and I have a boy and when I read the book I was so moved. It’s so creatively written … I fell in love with it.” This was a chance to tell a story that we don’t often see on film.
“Monster is an opportunity to contribute a dramatic story about a brown boy coming of age that could impact not only the way people look at brown boys, but potentially our criminal justice system,” says Lee. “Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”
This project — her Tonik Productions teamed with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. and Bron Studios to produce this drama — is in line with the mission-driven work she adores. “And I’m unapologetic about that,” Lewis Lee says. “I am blessed to be in a position to create content and media. I feel a real responsibility to create something that moves the human condition forward in a positive way. I hope in the work that I do, it’s entertaining, but that we’re getting messages out there to impact our world and make it better.”
Toward the back of the gallery space is a makeshift photo studio, and people like director Anthony Hemingway are coming in for portraits. This year, the festival has a record 39 projects that either feature black people as the first, second or third lead, has a black director, black producers or black writers. This is a moment and everyone here is buzzing about it.
Lewis Lee, who is married to iconic director Spike Lee, is happy that there’s much to celebrate in Black Hollywood these days. But, she cautions, there’s still so much more work to do. “When Spike started making movies, there weren’t that many people out there doing it. To his credit, he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me,” she says. “And he’s done that. And those people have brought people. So here we are now in a moment where young people can look to my husband and his colleagues and say, Oh My God! If they can do that, I can do that.” She says that people are seeing now that there is a path.
“I look at people like Issa Rae … going back to Spike, Issa will tell you the ’90s formed who she is…to how she can be here. I look at Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) — that’s a direct line. In terms of women and black people, we have come a long way. We have a long way to go, but it’s exciting to get our voices out there and tell our stories.”
And the stories are robust. Many of the black projects being shown at Sundance this season tap into racism — however nuanced or overt — and the current political climate. “I think we’re trying to grapple with the issues of our time,” says Lewis Lee, who next is working on a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “John Legend said, ‘preparation meets opportunity.’ And we are prepared. And we’re getting a chance to talk about the issues of our time in a really wonderful way.”