Lena Waithe is cementing her place as a Hollywood power player: 'Like it or not, I'm not going anywhere'
Lena Waithe is no stranger to criticism. As a Black, masculine-presenting lesbian, the writer, actor, and producer has received her fair share from people who take issue with how she shows up in the world. "All of us who are Black and queer and live our lives out loud, we get that," she says at her EW cover shoot in L.A. in early April.
But as Waithe's empire has grown, she's been on the receiving end of commentary that is less about her identities and more about her work. Lately, it's as if she can't win over a vocal collective of detractors regarding projects she's produced — from her handling of misconduct claims on the set of the Showtime series The Chi (which returns for its fourth season May 23) to 2019's Queen & Slim (which she also wrote) and Little Marvin's recent Amazon Prime series Them, which some feel exploited Black pain.
Still, Waithe is "less concerned with how things are being received right now versus how [they] will be received 10 years from now ... Because work should age," she says, "and not all work ages well. But also, you have to remember that sometimes opinions can be temporary."
Something the 36-year-old (she turns 37 this month) has surely learned after a dozen years in the industry. Waithe's Hollywood journey began in the mid-aughts as an assistant to Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil. She was a production assistant for Ava DuVernay's narrative feature debut I Will Follow, a writer for Fox's Bones, and a producer on Justin Simien's 2014 film Dear White People. Then there's Netflix's Master of None, which returns May 23. Aziz Ansari, the original star and co-creator (with Alan Yang), directs and co-wrote all five episodes with Waithe, and he also appears occasionally. But Waithe's character, Denise, and her partner, Alicia (Naomi Ackie), are now the focus — in line with the show's history of pushing the boundaries of storytelling, absolutely, but the new direction also succeeds in putting some distance between the show and Ansari after a claim of sexual misconduct against him in 2018. "As human beings, we're all going to stumble. It's crazy to think that we won't," Waithe reflects on the situation. "But depending on what the stumble is, we can decide if it is someone who, after doing their work, we can give grace to. I absolutely felt like [Ansari was deserving]."
This latest chapter of Master of None is one that's been brewing for a few years now. While Waithe — who announced with her then-wife in early 2020 their separation just a couple of months after announcing they had secretly married — says this new story line is based on real life, it's not based on her life.
"We started writing this two or three years ago. It really was not my life at that point, just something we wanted to explore about a relationship that has its ups and downs," she explains of the third season, which is subtitled "Moments in Love." "We didn't want it to be my life or Aziz's life. It came from us talking to other people about their relationships and what they go through.... There are gonna be people that assume, 'This is your life,' but it can't be because we started writing it before my life went through its changes. But that's why we wanted to write it, because you never know where your life might be five years or 10 years later. You have all these ideas about what your love will be like and what your marriage will be and then you actually live it and experience it and learn so much."
The show's 2017 "Thanksgiving" episode was loosely based on her own experience, when she came out. The season 2 installment earned her and Ansari the comedy-writing Emmy, making her the first Black woman to do so in that category. Waithe's visibility drastically increased with the win — she was celebrated as someone to watch and immediately dubbed a spokesperson for Black LGBTQ folks. But Waithe says she never set out to be a role model.
"I just wanted to be a good television writer," she says. "I still really want to be one of the best to really write television. And I want to be respected as an artist and producer." Hyper focusing on being a person people look up to "can often hinder the work," she adds, "and that's not fair to the craft."
Still, there's a certain level of responsibility — some may call it a burden, even — foisted upon everyone not a straight, cisgender white man who breaks through a glass ceiling to tell what are perceived as the right stories. This can mean not playing into tired Hollywood tropes that collapse Black and queer identities into flat, stereotypical characters. It can mean elevating narratives that reflect present-day joy and project a deeply imaginative and liberatory future. It can mean not trafficking in Black trauma porn, particularly the varieties that peddle toward the emotional sympathies and guilt of white audiences and re-traumatize Black ones.
"That's what can be so frustrating," Waithe says. "White men [in this industry] often are not draped in, 'You've got to represent this and that.' It just doesn't happen, and therefore they get what? More freedom to play."
But Waithe is blazing her own trail — as evidenced by her expansive slate of projects — and building a playpen of her own under the banner of her production company Hillman Grad Productions. Named after the fictional historically Black college that was the setting of The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World and shepherded in part by Hillman's president of TV and film Rishi Rajani, the company's aim is to "center truth and humanity," Waithe says, while supporting diverse voices across all mediums and creating art that challenges the status quo.
Following last year's acclaimed film The Forty-Year-Old Version — written/directed by and starring Radha Blank, and which Waithe produced — Hillman Grad is working on Jingyi Shao's Chang Can Dunk, a 2020 Black List standout about a young Asian American teen who's a basketball fanatic, and A.V. Rockwell's feature directorial debut, A Thousand and One, about a free-spirited woman who kidnaps her 6-year-old child from the foster care system. Also in development is an as-yet-titled project with podcaster and media personality Kid Fury; a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic, and the series Reawakening, based on Neil Paik's short story of the same name — not to mention a second season of Twenties, the BET series based on Waithe's life; a stage musical; and the recently announced Hillman Grad Records, a label imprint in partnership with Def Jam Recordings. All ensuring her multiplatform reach.
"I'm trying to gain people's trust," Waithe says about her intentions behind everything Hillman Grad touches. "We really want to give people something that they can't watch passively. But I also understand the desire for entertainment that you can just watch and be joyful and everybody's happy. We have to have both, and there's such a beautiful variety at Hillman Grad."
Transforming an industry and making space for more and different kinds of storytellers, however, doesn't stop at what makes it to the screen. Many would say it's what happens behind the scenes, before an audience is ever able to give its stamp of approval or rejection, that truly brings about change. Enter the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab, a 10-month tuition-free program for marginalized storytellers, and Rising Voices, a recently announced collaboration between Hillman Grad and employment website Indeed that granted a $100,000 production budget to 10 filmmakers of color.
"I'm doing that in addition to everything else because that is also a part of the work," Waithe says of the initiatives. (Days after this interview, Waithe also announced via Instagram a partnership between ID-PR, the public relations agency which represents her, and Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monáe, called Defining Moments, a six-month immersive apprenticeship program for aspiring entertainment publicists.) "I have to help usher in this new generation and tell them to tell their truth and to do it unabashedly."
Part of those conversations with up-and-comers also grows out of her own experience grappling with feedback and critiques, from formal film and TV critics to those using social media to air their grievances. "I have to teach the generation that's coming up, art is not meant to be liked by everybody. You're going to make something that makes somebody upset or pisses somebody off," she says, clarifying that she doesn't encourage anyone to be lazy in terms of their storytelling. "But as long as you do it with respect and with truth and honesty and handle it with care, that's all you can do."
She's seemingly been walking that talk — and, without question, staying busy in the process. But the past year, during a time that forced many in the industry to slow down, she was able to take a breath and take stock of what's important to her as a creative.
"How will I be remembered is something I think about," she says before launching into a story about how her own opinions on art have shifted with age. When she was younger, she recalls, her mom always said, "It takes you a long time to really hear jazz" in response to Waithe's disdain for the music genre that often played in their car.
"My thinking was a reflection of who I was then," she continues. Now, almost 30 years later, jazz often fills the silence in her own home. "But Miles Davis hasn't changed, I have. I had to rise to it, and that doesn't mean I was beneath it. It just means I wasn't ready. I didn't understand it."
She hopes, quite fiercely, that history will be kind to her and her productions, and that, though some may be troubled by or not connect with the stories she tells, the sands of time might serve her well decades later.
"For me, the vision is to work through things," Waithe adds. "Art is supposed to be controversial, polarizing. It's supposed to be debated and talked about. Sometimes art that is really cozy and comfortable and warm I often forget."
So she'll keep taking the swings that may come, like her Black and queer ancestors before her, with the goal of making the path easier for those who come after. "You can keep making s—, or you can run away," she says without hesitation. "Like it or not, I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to keep making s—."
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