PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATHEW SCOTT
Last September, screenwriter, actor, and producer Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series, for Netflixu2019s Master of None. u201cThanksgiving,u201d the winning episode, followed Waitheu2019s character over a series of Turkey Days as she discovers her sexuality and comes out to her mother. Based on Waitheu2019s own life, the episode was widely praised for the honesty and heart it brought to a perspectiveu2014a queer black womanu2019su2014thatu2019s rarely portrayed on television. Waitheu2019s latest project, The Chi, also hits close to home. The new Showtime series, which she created and also executive produces along with the rapper Common, follows a group of working-class African Americans on Chicagou2019s South Side, where she was born and raised. Waithe called Rhapsody from Los Angeles to discuss misconceptions about her hometown, representation on TV, and what audiences really want from Hollywood.
You got your start in Hollywood as an assistant to amazing female writers and directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Mara Brock Akil, and Ava DuVernay. What did they teach you about the business?
A big takeaway from them was that you gotta always be polite, you gotta always be kind, even when people arenu2019t being kind to you. And I think particularly if youu2019re a woman of color, itu2019s mandatory. You always have to carry yourself with a certain level of decorum because I feel like we donu2019t have the luxury of throwing tantrums when we donu2019t get our way. We have to figure out a way to be diplomatic. They also taught me to always make it about the work. Thereu2019s a lot of noise in this town, and itu2019s about having blinders on and being focused.
How did you come up with the idea for The Chi?
I was seeing a lot of news reports coming out of Chicago, and I felt like there was a real misunderstanding of the city. And then it became a ploy in the political game, which I didnu2019t appreciate. I was really determined to tell a different story and to give a different perspective. I think thereu2019s this element of people thinking that black boys, particularly in Chicago, are just born bad, and thatu2019s just not the case. I wasnu2019t really interested in looking at it like, Oh, we got a cop car and the cop in the front, the black kid in the back seat. I donu2019t care as much about the cop driving the car or what his story is; I care about the kid in the back seat. I want to know how that kid got there versus just judging him based on where he is.u00a0
So that historic Emmy of yoursu2014has being a u201cfirstu201d added any pressure?
I donu2019t really succumb to pressure per se. Because at the end of the day, Iu2019m an artist, so I donu2019t really want to do the thing of, Oh, let me top myself. Itu2019s more about, Whatu2019s the new thing that Iu2019m interested in, whatu2019s the new obsession or whatu2019s the new story that I have to tell? I kind of like that [with The Chi], Iu2019m hitting people with the drama first, because no matter what kind of comedy I came out with, it would be compared to Master of Noneand that Thanksgiving episode. So the cool thing about The Chi is that people donu2019t have anything to compare it to. Theyu2019ll have to look at it at face valueu2014and that, to me, is exciting.
What were some of the TV shows that made you want to be a writer?
A Different World for sure; that had such a huge impact on me. We u201980s babies/u201990s kids were seeing characters that looked like us on a historically black college campus. Fictitious though it may be, it meant a lot because not only were they cool and fly and fashionable, but they were smart, and they were kind, and they were woke. They were students of the world and society. And I just felt like, whatever this is, I want to be a part of it.
When was the first time you saw yourself in a TV character?
I donu2019t think I ever saw myself until myself was on television. Iu2019m a bit of a unique character in my own life. So I think me being on TV as a black woman whou2019s a bit of a soft stud, who dresses in a very androgynous type of way, with a certain type of flair and swagu2014I ainu2019t never seen that before! With the character on Master of None, I heard from a lot of people, u201cYo, we had never seen you before. But we needed to. We didnu2019t realize how much we needed to see you.u201d Thatu2019s why Iu2019m honored that I could be a game changer in that way. I didnu2019t realize that me being on that TV show would be as impactful as it has been.
I feel like in Hollywood today there are a lot more opportunities for people to tell their own unique stories.
Do you think that change is here to stay?
I think it has to. I donu2019t think we can put the jack back in the box because audiences now really have gotten used to seeing unique, authentic stories. How do you backtrack from Atlanta? How do you backtrack from Dear White People? How do you backtrack from The Handmaidu2019s Tale? How do you backtrack from something like The Chi? You canu2019t go back. Audiences now want something more. They donu2019t just want the cheesy show with the black cast. They donu2019t want just a show about a person coming of age and coming out. That wonu2019t fly anymore. It has to really come from an artistu2019s perspective.