Your Everyday Heroes is proud to feature one of today’s many esteemed Black female film directors Vick Lee. From an early age, Lee immersed herself in movies and TV, eventually studying film at Columbia College Chicago. Whether telling stories of love or conflict, Lee’s body of work always maintains a socially conscious bend.
In November of 2020, she was unfortunately diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, a disease notorious for its low survival rate. Despite the severity of her condition, her drive to create and inspire remains unhindered. Inspirational cancer stories like Lee’s never fail to remind us that time is precious.
Who Is Vick Lee?
Vick Lee is a Chicago-based filmmaker whose social justice-oriented shorts tell of the Black experience in America. For her, filmmaking is a form of activism, a medium through which she can portray the realities of both Black struggles and Black love: “I want to see me on film,” she explains to Your Everyday Heroes.
Since childhood, Lee was immersed in the arts. “My family and I would have talent shows, do dance skits, little plays, and things like that,” she tells us.
Her budding interests would finally blossom when she attended Columbia College Chicago. Suddenly among a diverse community of filmmakers and other artists, Lee worked fervently to earn her place as one of today’s many great Black female film directors.
Lee’s passion for Black representation has won her considerable esteem within her community, her film “Look What You’ve Done”—which touches upon issues of police abuse—winning awards at the 2021 Founder’s Choice of Strong Chance Film Festival, 2020 Black Truth Film Festival, and the 2019 Founder’s Choice of Cane River Film Festival. Additionally, her romantic drama “The Polyamorist” was an official selection at the 2018 Black Harvest Film Festival, and her latest short, 2020’s “The Inbox Interviews,” was an official selection at a number of film festivals, including the South Side Chicago Film Festival.
For Lee, making films is not something that’s optional: she has to let loose the stories ruminating inside her imagination. “It [film] was something I couldn’t escape. It just kept calling to me,” she says. But while filmmaking scratches her artist’s itch, she doesn’t only do it for herself. “I’m doing this because I love it. But while I’m doing it, I also know that there are things that have to be conquered.”
What Lee seeks to conquer are the stereotypes ingrained within the film community, the notion that filmmaking is a medium reserved for the upper classes. She views film as more than mere entertainment, using her art to break down these barriers and make change not only in the realm of film, but in the world as a whole. “Film is my form of activism,” she says. “Everything that I do is done in love and in Blackness… Blackness is a culture, a resilience, a drive.” With her films, she seeks to elevate the status of Black women within a culture in which they have historically been ostracized.
Lee has used her artistic gifts to sculpt an incredible life and legacy. However, what happens when such an idyllic life–which one has worked tirelessly to achieve–is threatened by forces outside of one’s control? Unfortunately, she has been faced with this very predicament.
Lee’s Cancer Diagnosis
In November of 2020, Lee was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Stage 4, or, late-stage lung cancer refers to a cancer that has metastasized (spread) from the lungs to other parts of the body. Symptoms are particularly severe, including dyspnea (shortness of breath), coughing up blood, and chest pain. But what is most frightening about late-stage lung cancer is the fact that its five-year survival rate is a mere three to seven percent.
Currently, there is no cure for lung cancer, though there are treatment options, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and the less toxic targeted therapy, which involves the administration of drugs that target molecules involved in the growth/spread of cancer cells. The efficacy of treatments vary from person to person, and more often than not, they are used in conjunction with each other. There is unfortunately no guarantee that they will be successful.
When challenged by a disease like Lee’s—which threatens to rob us of all we’ve worked for—the normal human reaction is to break down, to question the purpose of life itself. Many may even conclude that life’s fleeting nature renders it valueless. And while Lee has done her fair share of crying and questioning, she has ultimately chosen to hold a different perspective: keep going. Keep going and smile.
Vick Lee Has No Plans to Stop
Despite being thrust into a position in which many would simply throw in the towel, Vick Lee persists. In fact, in 2021 she became a cohort of the Digital Storytelling Initiative’s Production Institute, a program of the Digital Storytelling Initiative at the Logan Center for the Arts. According to the DSI’s website, the program “makes high-quality digital production training accessible to emerging media makers from South Side communities” and “addresses the lack of affordable, intensive courses available to South Side filmmakers and media artists…”
As a cohort, Lee will expand upon her skills as a filmmaker. Clearly, she does not allow her diagnosis to hinder her plans for the future. She is also currently working on a new project, the details of which have not been publicly disclosed, though we can assure you, it’s something you’ll want to look out for.
“I want people to be inspired to keep going,” she tells us. “You can get faced with some devastating, life-changing news, but you can push through it and still do what you want to do. You can still follow your passions.”
Black Female Directors
Vick Lee is one of the many Chicago filmmakers that complete projects locally, but she is one of the few Black female directors that hails from the area.
Among the elite group of Black female directors is Angela Robinson, who became the third black woman in history to direct a movie produced by a major film studio, when she helmed 2005 Lindsay Lohan starrer, “Herbie: Fully Loaded” for Disney in 2005. She went on to direct and produce Showtime smash hit “The L Word” and HBO’s “True Blood,” along with feature film “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” in 2017.
Chicago born “Eureka” actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield may have gotten her start in front of the camera, but she has become one of Hollywood’s hottest television directors with since taking on two episodes of “Queen Sugar” in 2016. Richardson-Whitfield has directing credits on “Scandal,” “Black-ish,” “The Magicians,” “Dear White People,” “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” and a show based on her hometown, “The Chi.”
The creator of “The Chi,” executive producer and director Lena Waithe, who has written huge Hollywood hits “Bones,” “Boomerang,” “Master of None,” and feature film “Queen & Slim,” is one of the most successful Chicago filmmakers that produces work locally.
Mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, who created ABC mainstay “Grey’s Anatomy,” along with popular must see shows “Scandal,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” and Grey’s spinoff “Station 19,” also hails from Chicago. Here most recent venture 18th century period romance “Bridgerton,” has become one of Netflix’s top shows, and has spurned a spinoff series that will focus on the the early years of Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel.
Unfortunately, stage 4 lung cancer stories are not as rare as one would think. According to the American Lung Association, “Approximately 541,000 Americans living today have been diagnosed with lung cancer at some point in their lives.” And according to Verywell Health, “Nearly 40% of people who learn they have lung cancer are already at stage 4 of the disease when they’re newly diagnosed.”
While her situation is not uncommon, Lee’s unwavering efforts to continue creating and inspiring make her an everyday hero. For her, a cancer diagnosis is merely a footnote in an ever-evolving artistic legacy. Her steadfast optimism has proven to be the recipe for a fulfilling life, no matter her circumstances. Your Everyday Heroes has been proud to bring you one of our favorite inspirational cancer stories, and we hope that it has helped you to unlock your own inner hero.
If you are interested in learning more about Lee’s work, please have a look at the following links.
https://avickflick.com: The official site for A Vick Flick, Lee’s film imprint. Includes links to socials, interviews, her blog, and a list of film services that she provides.
https://vimeo.com/avickflick: Lee’s Vimeo page, which includes the short film “Look What You’ve Done” in its entirety.
https://www.facebook.com/blackfilmmakerguide/videos/356840292040252: An in-depth interview of Lee from the Black Filmmaker Guide.
https://www.lung.org: The official website for the American lung association. Includes other shared stage 4 lung cancer stories, information about lung cancer, and ways in which you can help.