The Lena Waithe Interview: The Prolific Creator-Producer Refuses to Be Defined

It’s a bittersweet moment for Lena Waithe. Three years after she made Emmy history as the first Black woman to win for comedy series writing (on Netflix’s “Masters of None”), Waithe is at the height of her influence, with three different television series on the air (“Twenties,” “Boomerang,” and “The Chi”). Yet even as her success sits at the center of what she believes to be a rebirth for Black creatives in Hollywood, it is now unfolding against the backdrop of a pandemic and nationwide protests over racial inequality.

“I think we’re living in a very historic time, and that’s really how people should frame it,” Waithe said in a candid interview with IndieWire. “And once the dust settles, I think that we are going to be forced to behave differently.”

Waithe said she was empowered by what she calls a “revolution,” not only in the streets but also on the screen. She’s one of a slew of A-list showrunners with mega deals at major studios (Amazon), in the rare position to tell stories about the lives of Black people that reflect the times and reach millions nationwide. She has upcoming projects at virtually every major player in town — Showtime, HBO, and Amazon are all developing projects with her, and she has a new script following last year’s “Queen and Slim” set up at Universal Pictures with Cynthia Erivo attached to star.

Waithe defined her winning strategy as a combination of showing nerve and diversifying her interests.

“Some people may say, ‘Just tell Black stories. Just tell Black, queer stuff.’ Well, I’m going to do that because I don’t know how not to,” she said. “But I can also do other things, and I think that will be my next mission is to hope that people can watch me grow and do things that may be unexpected.”

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

INDIEWIRE: You have never been shy about expressing your opinion over the way this country treats Black people. With the protests taking place around the country now, do you feel like the world has caught up to you?

LENA WAITHE: I think we’re living in a very historic time and that’s really how people should frame it. And once the dust settles, I think that we are going to be forced to behave differently. History repeats itself. Take a picture from 1964 and put it next to a picture from today; they look very similar. Truly. The fashion is different but the passion is not. The frustration is not. The anger is not. My hope is is that we don’t have to do this again. There’s a scene in my favorite show, “A Different World,” in the two-part episode on the riots in L.A. over the Rodney King verdict. Someone says, “Well, hopefully after this time, things will be different.” And then Colonel Taylor says, “Didn’t we say that when the Watts uprising happened 25 years ago?” And, 30 years later after Rodney King, here we are again. But I for one am very empowered by what’s happening. Also, being a storyteller, the narrative is starting to shift because people are realizing that Black people’s rage is absolutely rooted in something, and what we’re asking for isn’t that crazy. We shouldn’t have to run 10 times as fast just to get half of what everybody else has.

One thing that has encouraged me this time is how widespread the reaction has been. Even Fox News hosts condemned George Floyd’s killing. Why do you think things are different this time?

I believe in Black people not allowing things to go back to the status quo. Not just us, but also hopefully our white allies. We do need to come together, to talk to each other, we need to listen to each other. Also, everybody knows my big thing is that I’m all about intersectionality. When we talk about Black life and Black people advancing, I’m also representing people who are Black and a part of the LGBTQIA+ community as well. When we as a people come together, we should also be accepting of all Black people, all walks of life.

These must be very interesting times for Black artists like yourself. Some have chosen to sit out the fight, and just create art, while others are doing the opposite. Where do you stand?

Look, I get it. Being an activist is not everybody’s ministry. But you can’t be a Black artist today and not be affected by what’s happening in some way, shape, or form. It’s about just using what I have and what I know to be helpful, one of which is a new initiative in conjunction with my company, Hillman Grad Productions, where we’re giving money directly to Black protestors on the ground. We’re just Cash App-ing them or Venmoing them funds. It is not tax-refundable, but that’s not really a big deal to me. We just want to help people.

I’ve heard you say that your work is all about humanizing Black people. What sort of impact do you want that to have? 

Well, one movie, TV show, or character can’t stop racism. I wish. But what I do think is that it can start to change the way people think and look at us. We can say what we want about Bill Cosby, but what you can’t take away is the significance of the “The Cosby Show,” which also then spun off “A Different World,” which showed Black people in a way that we really hadn’t seen before then on TV. And these were very popular shows, seen in the homes all across America. I mean, the Cosbys were a very well-to-do family, an easily digestible Black family, but that is where it began. Because you don’t get “Martin” without “The Cosby Show.” And then “Martin” leads all the way to “Atlanta,” and “Insecure,” and “The Chi,” and other shows. So we need every step. I love that we live in a world where you have “Twenties,” “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” “I May Destroy You,” all existing on TV at the same time. I think it so important for America to see that we all experience and express our Blackness in different ways. I think they’re starting to see that, because they also see we are ingrained into this country. Our culture permeates. If you love America, you love Black people.

You are often seen as an overnight success story, but you’ve been in the business for well over a decade. How do you feel about that perception?

That’s the weird thing. I’m 36 but I feel like an O.G. in a weird way, because I’ve lived through some shit. When I first came out to L.A., it was really difficult for Black folks. There was still a bit of a drought. But I’ve been out here, paying my dues, doing the work, being the student. That’s why I think it’s so important for me to now be a teacher, in a way. I really feel like my experiences have created this ability for me to teach Black folks coming up in a way that they can really understand, and a language they understand. I told one person who was going through some shit, “Feel this pain. Lean into it. Own it. It hurts, it sucks. But also just remember that ‘Twenties’ started at BET, then it went to Hulu, then it went to TBS, and now we’re back on BET.” Living through that journey with that show was not fun. I can say that sentence to you in two secs, but that was a culmination of about six years of frustration. And I’m just grateful for that and every experience I’ve ever hard.

How did your Emmy win for “Masters of None” change your career?

I will say that was a defining moment for me, because I got etched into the Television Academy world as the first Black women to ever be nominated in that category and to ever win. I know the significance of that, and I also know how important it is to make sure I’m not the last motherfucker to win an Emmy in that category. But for me, I think that the defining moment was deeper than that. It actually was when I decided to write “Queen and Slim.” I was feeling really powerless on the “The Chi.” I really felt like I didn’t know what my role was anymore. I wasn’t able to write on the show in the way I wanted to. This was during the first and second seasons. Now, Season 3 is my boy. Finally, I’ve been empowered on that show. I’ve been grateful to the studio and network for giving me the trust and that power, because Season 3 is very me. Before that, it wasn’t really, and because I wasn’t able to really do my thing on that show, I did it in “Queen and Slim.” I poured all my frustrations with the world, with what was going on with Black people, with what was going on in my own situation on [“The Chi”]. I just channeled all of that. I went back to the craft and forgot everything else, and things started to fall into place. That, for me personally, was the moment.

“Queen and Slim” certainly seems relevant these days in light of the George Floyd protests.

I know the movie’s coming up a lot now with everything that’s going on, and I’m not out here telling people, “Oh, go watch my film.” My thing is all we wanted to do is speak to a truth that was happening, which was that Black people are being killed by cops as if we’re not human. I didn’t want to look away from that, I didn’t want to shy away from that, because I thought it was my duty as an artist to reflect the times in which I lived. And that’s what I did, and I hope that eventually that movie becomes no longer necessary. But as of right now, which is unfortunate, it continues to become more relevant. I am really happy that we’re in a place that we’re standing up and saying, “No, we won’t take this anymore. We don’t have to look at it anymore,” whether it be on the big screen or in real life.

You’re doing almost everything: writing, producing, acting — but you’re not directing. Why not?

Well, I just don’t think everybody can do it. It’s not the gift I believe I was given. I know a lot of people have pushed me to do it, but I really, really respect it. I’m still trying to become the best writer I can be, and I think I have to continue to focus on that. Also to become a better actor as well, as there are a ton of opportunities for myself in that arena. I really am trying to stretch myself in that area. Just the way someone goes, “Oh, I could be a writer. I could write a script.” That’s the most disrespectful thing to say to a writer, because we go through a lot trying to become really good at what we do. It takes a lot of time and energy and solitude and frustration and pain to get to a decent place. That’s why I wouldn’t just say, “Oh yeah, I’m thinking about directing.” Because I respect people who do it too much to be frivolous about their profession.

You once talked about how as a Black woman in Hollywood, you had to learn early on about decorum and the way that specifically Black women have to carry themselves in the industry; you can’t be angry about anything, and you couldn’t wait to get to the point where you didn’t have to worry about making others feel comfortable. Are you there yet?

Yeah, I definitely have fewer fucks to give. That’s apparent, but I think that comes with some power. Because I’m in a position where I can move a different way. I can tell a white exec, “No, I don’t want to do that.” But not everybody has that. That decorum thing is still happening. But shit, with all that’s happening right now, it may go out the fucking window. The real tea is, a lot of white men in my position don’t have to worry about decorum. That is a form of racism and white supremacy. I was very lucky, early on, I got to work on mostly Black shit. I wasn’t really around white people those years. I was working on “Girlfriends,” “Secret Life of Bees,” “I Will Follow.” I was surrounded by Black people from the start, so I also have a level of confidence from my community. We all talk to each other with respect. My hope is what comes out of this is that the whole decorum thing goes out the window. We can all talk our shit and do our thing and not be penalized for it. Trust me, there’s some white, male directors that have done shit that a Black woman could never get away with, and now I hope she can.

In Hollywood, there aren’t exactly a ton of masculine-presenting lesbians. How noticeable is that to you?

There aren’t really any in Hollywood. They may not have got in here yet, but they exist. They’re out here. They’ve got stories they want to tell. I see them, I hear them. But no, in terms of the space I take up, you’re right. Samira Wiley is sort of also there, but she is probably more feminine presenting than me. Still, that’s somebody who I look at and see a version of myself.

Do you think that in 2020 it’s still taboo to come out in Hollywood? 

It definitely is, particularly for Black men. Just think about it: How many out, gay Black men are in Hollywood right now? When you compare the number of Black men in Hollywood, and how many are out gay Black men, the numbers just don’t make sense. Same thing with the women. I will say that it’s not their fault or their responsibility. I think that the business is still very narrow-minded about how to treat a queer, Black artist. I think they are starting to learn and are becoming more welcoming. But I’m privileged in that I am a woman, and I also came into the business as somebody who was already out. It’s not like people thought of me as straight for a while, and then I had to come out. That wasn’t my journey. I never even technically had to come out, because I was already out. But my hope and prayer is that eventually it will not be difficult. Because I want people to be able to feel comfortable to be themselves. To live life victoriously. I definitely think we in the industry could do better. But we’re making strides.

There’s an episode of Kenya Barris’ “blackAF” where you, Kenya, Ava DuVernay, Tim Story, Will Packer and Issa Rae appear and speak about Black people sharing honest criticism of Black art, film, television. What do you think the relationship should be between a filmmaker or a TV creator and a film critic at this point?

It can be a very fraught relationship. We do have a lot of Black critics, and I think we need to amplify their voices more, even if they don’t like our shit. Because they have a right to stand next to the Variety reviews, the Hollywood Reporter reviews, the New York Times reviews and the L.A. Times reviews. I think we need to make sure that our Black critics are treated with the same level of respect. Because there is a difference in the way a Black critic watches a Black film and a white critic watches a Black film. The truth is, Black artists don’t want passes from anybody. I don’t want a pass from a white critic because my movie’s Black and they think it’s “important,” even if they may not think it’s good work. I don’t want a pass from a Black critic because they’re like, “Well, I don’t want to tear a sister down.” I want to be treated fairly. I also think film criticism is an art form, and it’s to be respected. Not everybody can or should do it. But we’ve got to respect the Black critic. Because it’s necessary for me. I care more about what Black critics have to think about the work, because it’s a reflection.

Some people are saying the current environment has lead to a renaissance for people of color — specifically Black people — in film and television. Do you think it’s real?

We better be further ahead. If not, then what the fuck are we doing? I definitely think we’re in a renaissance. I love the fact that I can watch “Insecure” and “I May Destroy You” back to back. That, to me, is a big deal. That would never happen five years ago. They would have been like, “Sorry, Michaela, we already got some show with Black women in it, so we can’t have another.” Also I love that Janelle [Monáe] is on fucking “Homecoming.” It went from Julia Roberts to Janelle? The fact that I’m at a space where I can have three shows on television at the same time. Black folks are getting deals, mostly women are running shit. It’s phenomenal. It’s just a beautiful thing to see. It’s like it’s a revolution and a renaissance. But I want to see more. Because the more art we have, I think that the criticism that we just talked about will also shift and change.

Is there a Lena Waithe brand? To me, you’re not a person that can be easily put in a box.

Trust me, I look at my slate too and think, “Wow, I can’t even define myself.” But I think that’s the brand. It’s undefinable. All we want is to be good and respected, so that even if you don’t like the content, you can’t deny the specificity. You can’t deny the care. You can’t deny how unique it is. That, to me, is really what we’re about. We will tell all kinds of stories. We want to do all kind of different things. We’re doing “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” movie, because that was a show that was very influential for me early on. Also I’m talking about doing something on Sammy Davis Jr. It’s always just about what interests us. I think that is a form of freedom. Some people may say, “Just tell Black stories. Just tell Black, queer stuff.” Well, I’m going to do that because I don’t know how not to. But I can also do other things, and I think that will be my next mission is to hope that people can watch me grow and do things that may be unexpected. But that’s the job of the artist, is to evolve, is to shift, is to grow. That’s what I want to continue to do. If I’m doing something that looks like something I did already, that’s a problem. I want to aspire to be is always shifting and evolving, and not always being able to recognize myself.

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