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Incredible Women

Lena Waithe on using power to push the powerless forward

In addition to working on a number of electrifying new releases, Hollywood multi-hyphenate LENA WAITHE is turning her attention to the next generation of filmmakers. She talks to MARJON CARLOS about the importance of telling marginalized stories and raising up a bold new class of creatives

Screenwriter, actor, producer Lena Waithe

What role does an artist play in the time of strife? Many argue that in moments like these – when the unprecedented international health and racial pandemics have brought the global community to its knees – creatives pick up their tools and persist. This, perhaps, explains Lena Waithe’s seemingly inexhaustible energy for her craft, even in the precarious and unprecedented moment we are speaking.

When we talk over the phone, I’m immediately struck by her optimism for the future and her work. On what has been bringing her joy this year, the Primetime Emmy Award-winning screenwriter/producer/actor launches into an inventory of new projects she’s been working on while on ‘autopilot’ mode in quarantine. “The truth is, I’m excited about a ton of them,” she tells me, her signature raspy tenor filled with anticipation and accomplishment.

The list is extensive, but at a glance, there’s the mentorship program that Waithe has set up for young, emerging filmmakers with her Hillman Grad Productions; a rewrite of a feature, the name of which she can’t reveal; this month’s highly anticipated release of Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version, which she produced; additional executive producer duties for upcoming anthology horror series Them: Covenant, written by Little Marvin; capped off by an onscreen acting performance in Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, a 1980s-set slasher satirization that takes on beauty norms.

“You have to work through the trauma literally and figuratively,” says Waithe of her dizzying productivity level. “You have to really try to make sense of what’s going on and have some sort of understanding for your own sanity. But at the same time, you literally have to work.”

“A renaissance shouldn’t be cyclical. It should be constant. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, there’s this burst of Black television right now.’ We should constantly have a number of Black shows that explore different lives in different areas in different places in different workplaces, all the time. And it’s still not enough”

In truth, even before enduring this year’s major events, Waithe’s catalogue of work was interrogating the intersection of art and politics. Her 2019 effort, Queen & Slim, cracked open conversations around police brutality: the highly stylized ‘on-the-run’ love story – directed by Melina Matsoukas of Formation fame – follows an African-American couple (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) in a cross-country quest for freedom after a violent run-in with the police, making them both fugitives and heroes. With a haunting Dev Hynes-produced soundtrack and Matsoukas’ sweeping cinematography of the American landscape as its backdrop, Queen & Slim was initially heralded by critics as a pièce de résistance from members of the new Black Hollywood vanguard. But the movie also divided audiences, with Black Twitter erupting into conversations around whether it trafficked in ‘trauma porn’ and propped up Black death for mass consumption.

“I think I am taking a page out of the book of Nina Simone; in that she says it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times,” the screenwriter says now, reflecting almost a year after the movie’s release. “But also, it’s an artist’s duty to sometimes rewrite history or to create a fantasy.”

Bad Hair, starring LaFaye Baker, Vanessa Williams and Yaani King Mondschein

Despite the chatter online, Waithe invited the critique. She knew that Queen & Slim was not about provocation, but about evincing a racist history that is often suppressed within media. “As an artist, it’s good to listen to others, but you also have to listen to yourself first… It’d be different if it was like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to do this because it will get a reaction.’ That wasn’t it at all. It really was a result of me seeing mural after mural, hashtag after hashtag, and it was really an exploration of why this nation appreciates dead Black people more than Black people who are still alive.”

Harkening back to the groundbreaking work of photographer Gordon Parks and playwright Lorraine Hansberry as a blueprint, Waithe knew that an honest portrayal of the Black experience in the US was one that waxed and waned between sheer beauty and deep melancholy. She would have to show it all – even if audiences weren’t always ready for it. “I think to me, the biggest thing is not being so concerned with how society receives the work. It’s more about how the work is going to evolve over time, and how the work is still going to be relevant 10, 20 years from now,” Waithe explains. “I think Queen & Slim was a prime example of that.”

In fact, Waithe has always been ahead of the times. Overcoming considerable odds (she’s Black, she’s a woman, she’s proudly queer), the screenwriter made history in 2017 as the first African-American woman to win the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for penning Master of None’s ‘Thanksgiving’ episode. Starring Angela Bassett and Kym Whitley, and directed by Matsoukas – her eventual Queen & Slim collaborator – it was a heart-warming rendering of Waithe’s own coming-out story. After picking up her statue that evening, the screenwriter’s Emmy speech would go viral, with the queer creative proudly shouting out her LGBTQIA+ community (“I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers…”). It was an evening of firsts.

[Queen & Slim] was a result of me seeing mural after mural, hashtag after hashtag, and it was really an exploration of why this nation appreciates dead Black people more than Black people who are still alive”

The win would not only cement Waithe as a power player who is able to capture the zeitgeist in her writing, but also as a change agent within an industry that has historically privileged the voices of those who are white and male. Rather than ‘getting drunk on power’, the former assistant to heavyweight directors such as Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) saw her newfound influence in Hollywood as a responsibility to center marginal and underrepresented voices and help tell their stories.

“For me, if I use power at all, it’s to… push [the powerless] forward and stand behind them, as we look at those in power and say, ‘You will give this person a platform. You will give this person space to tell stories in the way that their white male counterparts have been allowed to do since this industry started.’ Because there’s a lot of back pay that’s owed,” she says.

Following the success of Master of None, in 2018 Waithe went on to create and executive produce Showtime’s The Chi – a neighborhood prestige drama that pays homage to her own South Side Chicago home turf. With Halle Berry, Waithe repurposed the 1992 rom-com Boomerang (in which Berry originally starred) for a modern television reboot on BET in 2019. Then came 2020’s loosely autobiographical coming-of-age original sitcom Twenties, which refreshingly casts the spotlight on Hattie, a masculine-presenting lesbian played by Jonica T. Gibbs. The wildly addictive story follows the movie buff through her first foray into the world of TV screenwriting while taking on the challenges of adulting.

It’s an exciting time for Waithe, all the more so because these shows enter an emerging canon of Black woman-centered programming that includes Issa Rae’s Insecure and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. Proudly sitting amongst her peers, Waithe ruminates, “I love that we’re all three different kinds of Black women and telling very different stories. That, to me, is revolutionary, because before it used to be, ‘Oh, we got it. We good.’”

Queen & Slim movie poster, starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya
“To me, the biggest thing is not being so concerned with how society receives the work. It’s more about how the work is going to evolve over time, and how it’s still going to be relevant 10, 20 years from now”

But Waithe concedes there is still much to be done in the way of a fair representation of inclusive and diverse programming. “A renaissance shouldn’t be cyclical. It should be constant. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, there’s this burst of Black television right now.’ We should constantly have a number of Black shows that explore different lives in different areas in different places in different workplaces, all the time. And it’s still not enough.”

It’s why Waithe remains inspired by the up-and-coming Black creatives making names for themselves, a bold new class of filmmakers with whom she frequently collaborates with and mentors though the AT&T Short Film Fellowship and her own productions company, Hillman Grad Productions. They bring out new ideas that add on to the contributions that Waithe’s peer class (Donald Glover, Issa Rae, Justin Simien) and those before them, gave. “Every generation is a reflection of the one before it, but they also are determined to redefine the thing which they want to tackle. I think that, [with] this next generation, I just want to be here to continue to watch and cheer and to help as they build their own legacy.” Hence she is also setting her sights on learning the ins-and-outs of distribution: to ensure these stories reach the audiences that so desperately need them. “I think the distribution side of it is the part that I’d love for us to figure out, because that’s the one spot where it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I get this out to people?’” Rest assured, Waithe is resolutely working on bridging that gap and getting these stories out there.

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