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 Netflix’s Master of None. “Thanksgiving,” the winning episode, followed Waithe’s character over a series of Turkey Days as she discovers her sexuality and comes out to her mother. Based on Waithe’s own life, the episode was widely praised for the honesty and heart it brought to a perspective—a queer black woman’s—that’s rarely portrayed on television. Waithe’s 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 Chicago’s 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 aren’t being kind to you. And I think particularly if you’re a woman of color, it’s mandatory. You always have to carry yourself with a certain level of decorum because I feel like we don’t have the luxury of throwing tantrums when we don’t get our way. We have to figure out a way to be diplomatic. They also taught me to always make it about the work. There’s a lot of noise in this town, and it’s 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 didn’t appreciate. I was really determined to tell a different story and to give a different perspective. I think there’s this element of people thinking that black boys, particularly in Chicago, are just born bad, and that’s just not the case. I wasn’t 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 don’t 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.
So that historic Emmy of yours—has being a “first” added any pressure?
I don’t really succumb to pressure per se. Because at the end of the day, I’m an artist, so I don’t really want to do the thing of, Oh, let me top myself. It’s more about, What’s the new thing that I’m interested in, what’s the new obsession or what’s the new story that I have to tell? I kind of like that [with The Chi], I’m 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 don’t have anything to compare it to. They’ll have to look at it at face value—and 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 ’80s babies/’90s 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 don’t think I ever saw myself until myself was on television. I’m a bit of a unique character in my own life. So I think me being on TV as a black woman who’s a bit of a soft stud, who dresses in a very androgynous type of way, with a certain type of flair and swag—I ain’t never seen that before! With the character on Master of None, I heard from a lot of people, “Yo, we had never seen you before. But we needed to. We didn’t realize how much we needed to see you.” That’s why I’m honored that I could be a game changer in that way. I didn’t realize that me being on that TV show would be as impactful as it has been.
If you’re a woman of color [in Hollywood] you have to carry yourself with a certain level of decorum. We don’t have the luxury of throwing tantrums.
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 don’t 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 Handmaid’s Tale? How do you backtrack from something like The Chi? You can’t go back. Audiences now want something more. They don’t just want the cheesy show with the black cast. They don’t want just a show about a person coming of age and coming out. That won’t fly anymore. It has to really come from an artist’s perspective.