The meaning of heroism is often misconstrued. We have a tendency to limit the definition of “hero” to one with powers beyond our own, and as a result, we often do not see our own potential for heroism. In reality, heroes walk among us. Heroes are those who, even when afflicted by dire conditions, find ways to make sacrifices for the common good.
Vick Lee is the embodiment of all that a hero represents. She is a Chicago-based filmmaker whose art serves a purpose beyond mere entertainment; her social justice-oriented shorts seek to break down Black stereotypes ingrained within film. Best known for her 2019 work “Look What You’ve Done”–which examines the issue of police violence–Lee’s films have been showcased at film festivals across the U.S.
However, Lee’s art is only one aspect of her inspiring story. In November of 2020, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, a disease known for its low survival rates. But, being the hero that she is, she hasn’t allowed this diagnosis to stop her from making the most of the time she has.
We consider Vick Lee an everyday hero because she has not allowed her illness to stop her from doing what she loves. And what she loves is bolstering her community. When she is creating her socially conscious films, her focus is always beyond herself. “Our natural instinct is to take care of one another because we all are one,” she tells us.
A Positive Approach to a Negative Circumstance
“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.”
For Lee, these are not just words; she recently became a cohort of the Logan Center for the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Initiative’s Production Institute, where she will further develop her craft, picking up new skills to use for future projects.
“I want people to come away with being inspired,” she tells us. Then, pointing to her brain, she proclaims, “This is what’s important, taking care of this and being happy. What’s the purpose of the other way? That’s not going to do anything for me, so I might as well smile.”
While Lee’s is just one of many inspirational cancer stories, what makes her so unique is her ability to decenter herself. When confronted with our mortality, it is natural for us to lament the loss of what makes us happy, to reflect on our time alive and wish we’d been given more. Lee is different, though: she has learned that there is more to life than merely what satisfaction it can bring her, that living is instead a window of opportunity to help others. Her work reflects this in its focus on Black representation, love, and the overarching human experience.
“The work isn’t for me,” she says. “It’s for my grandchildren. It’s for the generations to come.”
Who Are Lee’s Heroes?
When asked about her personal heroes, Lee is quick to point out the great influence her parents have had on her outlook. “They’ve still got their minds, and they still do so much. It doesn’t matter what’s going on with them physically… They are so strong and so powerful.
“We had a birthday party recently, and my dad out-danced all of us,” she recalls with a smile. She goes on to say of her father, “Something my dad says that I say now is, ‘I don’t claim it’… If there’s something that’s hurting him, he just says, ‘I’m not claiming it,’ and he pushes through.”
Lee’s choice to cite her parents as heroes is telling of her gratitude. Her parents are likely no more powerful in society than you or me, but to her they are greater heroes than any celebrity or politician. They are real.
How Is Lee’s Story Relevant to Our Lives?
From inspirational cancer stories to the tall tales of our elders, the hero’s story is one that has universal appeal. Even if we aren’t afflicted by the same conditions as Lee, we can learn from her unwavering optimism. Because like Lee, we all struggle in some way. The easy solution is to do nothing, to accept our negative circumstances and allow them to overtake us. However, the easy solution has no long term benefits.
Whether we’re creating art, navigating an illness, or simply struggling to get out of bed in the morning, we must not fall victim to those voices that tell us to give up. And if we cannot find purpose in living for ourselves, we can learn to live for others.