You may not know Yvonne Huff Lee by name just yet, but you likely know her work.
The actress-turned-producer and the co-CEO of Lagralane Group, which she founded with husband Jason Delane Lee, has been behind documentaries like Step, Icarus, The Blood Is At The Doorstep, and most recently, The Apollo, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
At the core of all her work is a message.
“We really try to come from a social impact place,” Lee told ESSENCE. “The reason that we decided to do The Apollo was that we had just spent a summer in Harlem because my husband was doing a show with the Classical Theatre of Harlem in the park. [My family] lived there for a couple of months and just loved Harlem.”
“And you could see the gentrification; [you] could see what was happening there. I just feel like Harlem needs to remember what Harlem is, was and what it will be.”
Diverse stories can sometimes be mishandled in the wrong hands, but one important aspect of Lee’s job is putting together a capable team, which is one of the reasons her work stands out.
You have to be also a truth seeker.
“My husband Jason and I, we are storytellers. Everything that we approach—we’re not creatively involved in every single thing that we’ve invested in—but in terms of producers, I think that we are always approaching everything creatively.”
“When you’re producing, your humanity has to step forward first. You have to be also a truth seeker,” she added. “You have to be able to recognize the humanity, the team, the director, and the story. It’s not just about money and power, and [thinking] ‘I’m a producer, I tell people what to do.'”
You can look at Step as an example of this in action. The 2017 documentary tells the story of a Baltimore high school step team, juggling the difficulties of daily life, the pressures of senior year, and an upcoming step competition. It’s impossible not to root for the young women in the film.
“When we saw it at Sundance, my sister was there as well. She actually saw the premiere before I did. She said to me, ‘Vonnie, I really should have seen this movie with you.’ She was super quiet about it so I knew that it really struck her,” she recalled. “And then I went and watched it and I was just got it.”
The film made Lee reflect on her own challenges and triumphs as she saw bits of herself in each of the young women’s stories.
“It made me reflect on, looking back, how did I make it? How did I make it here? How did I do that? You see it happening in Step. You see it happening with these girls and all the challenges that they have and how many people it takes to love a child, to make sure that they are successful,” she said. “The village is important and we’re in charge of finding the village.”
“That’s my job,” she continued. “I know I can’t teach everything, but what I can do is make sure that I create a village around you.”