Ahead of the release of her hotly anticipated Amazon Prime horror series, the Emmy-winning screenwriter, actor and producer talks to us about her mentorship programme, the importance of writing flawed characters and why Hollywood isn’t as inclusive as it thinks it is.
As the first Black female to win an Emmy in the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series category (for co-writing the standout ‘Thanksgiving’ episode of Aziz Ansari’s hit 2015 TV series, Master of None), Lena Waithe knows a thing or two about the importance of inclusivity in the entertainment industry – and about putting your money where your mouth is.
Over the course of a few short years, the actor, writer and producer’s name has become synonymous with some of Hollywood’s most talked-about projects, including the lovers-on-the-run thriller Queen & Slim (2019), the biting campus satire Dear White People (2017 to present), and the tender coming-of-age drama The Chi (2018 to present).
As a Black, queer woman, the 36-year-old from Chicago has never shied away from creating a space for her intersectional identity in her work, encouraging public debate surrounding the representation of Black artists and other minorities in the entertainment industry.
Earlier this year, Waithe partnered with Häagen-Dazs, which kicked off its #ThatsDazs campaign by donating $100K to her newly unveiled Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab as part of its pledge to commit $1.5m to underrepresented voices. Waithe’s programme aims to provide marginalised creators across three strands of the entertainment industry — TV writing, screen acting and executive development — with a platform to make their mark and disrupt an industry devoid of “meaningful complex representation”.
Here, Waithe sits down with Vogue to discuss her much-hyped upcoming Amazon Prime series Them, mentoring a new generation of marginalised creators, and the importance of acknowledging trauma.
You write these incredibly complex, often flawed Black characters, for which you’ve had some backlash. Why is it so important to bring these real, imperfect human beings to the screen?
“If we act as though we don’t have flaws, that’s like saying we aren’t human. I’m the most human person I know. I’m going to mess up – in love, in my career, in life. I reserve the right to be a human being. All of us who are pro-Black, pro-brown, pro-queer also need to be pro our scars, pro our complexities. Trauma is a thing that happens to us and is something we can’t blame ourselves for. While this idea of not wanting to display trauma in our entertainment is understandable, it’s just not sustainable. All movies can’t be nice or happy. Some of our most important pieces of art deal with our deepest pain. I want to write about what keeps me up at night.”
You were once quoted as saying: “Many women I see out in the world are very much like myself. We exist. The visibility of it was what was going to be so important and exciting.” Why is it so crucial that people see themselves represented on screen?
“It’s about people knowing that they can’t be erased. It’s about reserving the right to identify ourselves. It’s a process and it’s not easy, but guess what? Revolutions aren’t supposed to be. If we don’t acknowledge our experiences and our pain, then the oppressor gets to say it never happened.”
How close are we to a truly inclusive Hollywood?
“I don’t think we’re close at all. People are having conversations, yes, but things are still run by people who don’t look like us. Art is a reflection of our society. Not that long ago, things were said and done in film and on TV that now, maybe a decade later or so, are deemed extremely offensive. All we can do is learn from our mistakes.”
“If we don’t acknowledge our experiences and our pain, then the oppressor gets to say it never happened”
You’re an executive producer on the upcoming Amazon Prime series ‘Them’, which based on the trailer has drawn comparisons to Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ (2019). What can you reveal about the show ahead of its release on 9 April?
“[Series creator] Little Marvin is an artist. This is his first show, and it’s going to ruffle some feathers. It’s going to trigger some people. It’s not going to be an easy watch, but it will be unforgettable. These are exactly the kinds of things I want to be a part of – projects that won’t be forgotten. People are already taking swings, but it’s not about exploiting Black pain. It’s about not allowing the world to act as if we, as Black people, have to just be OK. There’s a reason why we’re not. Even though the show takes place in the ’50s, what happened then still affects us today. We can’t be afraid to tell these stories because these things fucking happened.”
Even when tackling serious issues, your work never comes across as preachy or cynical. Is that a conscious decision?
“Absolutely. I don’t like being preached at, that’s not my jam. I always try to present both sides. I think it’s important for art to reflect the very real issues of our time, but two characters in a scene should have opposing points of view. Otherwise, that scene just isn’t engaging. I want the audience to walk away and say: ‘Well, shit, I don’t know how I feel!’ I want people to see the human, complex side to any character. That’s what makes a movie stand the test of time.”
Can you tell us a little bit about the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab? What prompted this collaboration, and why is it so important?
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing. When I started out in the industry, I took part in several of these programmes myself. They’re an essential launching point for many aspiring writers. What our programme does is make our 25 mentees stop and think: ‘Hmmm.… I think I have something worth pursuing here.’ It validates them and lets them know they’re on the right path.
“Most Black and brown people don’t come from a Hollywood family. A lot of us don’t live in Los Angeles or New York. We’re now able to make sure they have all the resources they need. We provide them with materials, we teach them how to network, how to maintain relationships – all the tools you need to have to make it in the industry. These are things most people just don’t have access to.”
Which qualities did your successful applicants possess that made them stand out from the crowd?
“We selected our mentees from more than 4,000 applicants over the course of several months. All of them had a very clear vision about why they want to be in this business. All of them are incredibly resilient and have a unique point of view. That’s what this business really calls for, more than anything.”
What is the one piece of advice you’d give someone trying to make it in the industry?
“Just be in love with the craft. There’s this great [basketballer] Dennis Rodman quote: ‘I’ll play the game for free, but you get paid for the bullshit.’ I really relate to that. The writing is fun. Being creative is great. The rest of the stuff you just have to learn to tune out. People will always take swings at your work, but if you love what you do, the naysayers can’t touch you. Chatter is temporary, the work is forever.”
After the events of the past year, which saw more shootings of Black people and a significant rise in anti-Asian violence, is there reason to be hopeful?
“We must always be hopeful. The fact that we are where we are now is a sign that progress is happening, even though it’s happening slowly. Today, the world is different than it was yesterday. We have to always be hopeful, and we must always be optimistic. The second we give into the darkness, we’ve already lost. Let’s lean into the light.”
Them streams on Amazon Prime from 9 April