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Whatever your stance on #OscarsSoWhite and Hollywood’s aversion to change, one thing is certain: We need to do better. From a numbers perspective, the industry can feel overwhelmingly uninspiring for women and people of color. However, there are more than a few women stamping their brand of genius on the good ole boys' club that is Hollywood.
Case in point: Lena Waithe. Back in 2013, Waithe, 31, popped up on our radar after the release of her YouTube series, Twenties, about millennial women of color. Fast-forward to fall 2015, when she swept us away on Master of None as Denise, a witty, straight-talking woman who helps Aziz Ansari's character navigate his love life — and who also happens to be a lesbian. Used to working behind the scenes — she's written for the TV series Bones and produced last year's indie Dear White People — Waithe saw acting as a change of pace. “It’s definitely a different path than I ever expected to be on.”
The Chicago-born, California-based multi-hyphenate spoke candidly about navigating the industry and why the Oscars are so damn important.
Are you surprised by how well Master of None and Denise have been received? You’re so visible now. I’m very flattered by the reaction. And not just by gay people — the gay community has obviously been very supportive. But the straight community really loves the character. They like her swag, her attitude, and the advice she gives. For that opportunity to come to me was such a huge blessing. Usually when you see a gay person of color — especially if she’s a woman — it’s always written by someone who’s never met a Black lesbian in their lives. Aziz and Alan were like, ‘We really want you to inform who she is and what she says.’ I was telling them my stories. I would answer questions, and they would go away and come back with something cool on the page. It would be their version of a story I told them. And that’s what makes it so real.
As someone who’s very vocal about being Black, gay, and a woman, how did it feel to play a Black gay woman in Master of None? It felt good, but it was more about Alan and Aziz feeding off my energy and my genuine personality. Denise felt authentic. I’m not a shrinking violet and I don’t think there’s a world in which Denise would be, either. So I think they were just very mindful of that.
I read that you're contributing to Lena Dunham’s new book with Jenni Konner? Yes. Jenni was kind enough to ask me if I would contribute to it. It’s not even a chapter, they wanted me to write a little something that I can’t quite get into. I don’t know when it will be released or what it’s going to be called. I was just honored to have been asked. I was a writer’s assistant for a show Jenni had on ABC. She and I go way back. I was her first Lena — which I’m not afraid to tell her. [Laughs]
Can you talk about the show you wrote that's been picked up by Showtime? I’m in this waiting space right now with Showtime to see if they’re gonna move forward with the series. It’s an interesting place to be in, because I feel like I’m waiting to find out if I’m pregnant or not... It’ll be the only show on Showtime with a predominantly African-American cast.”
And the show is about Chicago, right? I’m dealing with the same subject matter as Spike Lee [in Chi-Raq], but it’s from a different angle. The characters are real human beings. This is no shade to Empire or Power, but no character is a drug dealer. No character is an athlete, singer, or dancer. They have regular jobs and they’re surviving in a war zone that’s also a city. There’s a lot of pressure.
Has there ever been a moment in your career when you were reminded that you were anything but the majority: a hetero white guy? As I deal with getting this series picked up by Showtime, that’s the sort of thing when I think, Okay, I gotta run a little bit further, work a little bit harder, and do a little bit more than everyone else. Getting things made in Hollywood is difficult in itself. It’s less about the writer and more about the story being told. Dear White People was difficult to make because of the story. The big machine looks at that and the message that it’s sending and how it’s speaking to audiences. Then, that machine is like, ‘Nah.’ Movies like Pariah, Dear White People, and Fruitvale Station take a bit longer to get through the red tape.
So, is it about getting the right material in the right hands then? If you’re writing something that’s complex and layered, it’s going to be difficult to get made. [Those films] are never going to be easy to get through the system. When you look at media, Black characters are often simplified to make it easier for broader audiences to digest. So if I write a character that’s flawed in a human way, Hollywood doesn’t know how to digest it or market it. It’s a little more work. Selling complex Black characters is hard.
I noticed your social media handle is @HillmanGrad, a reference to the show A Different World. Did your feelings about the sitcom — created by Bill Cosby — or the Cosby Show change in light of the allegations against him? Let’s put it this way, Cosby’s actions don’t take away from the fact that the episode of the Cosby Show that’s solely about Rudy wanting to wear a spring dress in the wintertime is probably one of the most pitch-perfect episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. That doesn’t make what he did right or any less wrong, absolutely not. But that doesn’t take away the feeling I got when I saw that for the first time. It’s perfect.
It sounds like you’re still inspired by it? Annie Hall is one of the most perfect movies ever made, save that [Woody Allen] married his stepdaughter. Am I thinking about that as I watch the movie? Not particularly. It’s also the same with A Different World, it doesn’t take away the impact it had. It’s difficult and it’s sad and it’s fucked up. I want those women to have justice, because they absolutely deserve that. At the same time, me throwing away the feelings I had and still have about those shows and what they meant to me doesn’t undo what those women went through. We as a society create the heroes we require for the time. We created [Cosby], because we required that kind of hero.
What are your thoughts on #OscarsSoWhite and the boycott? We work in an industry that’s a little behind the times. Although people do need to separate the conversation about the larger problems happening in our society versus the Oscars issue. For the people who work in this industry and make their living in this town, this is a big issue for us. We can care about this and Black folks getting bad water in Flint, Michigan, at the same time. We have that ability. These are two separate issues. That’s a big issue I’m seeing on social media. No one with half a brain is saying that we should be more focused on the Academy not being diverse and not talk about the larger issues. Though what we are saying is, this is a reflection of where we are as a society.
All around the world, the only way other countries and nations have a way to judge us is by our media, our films. That’s why images and how we present ourselves are so important. It’s a window into our country. So, to have all white nominees is actually a bigger issue than one might think.
How do you feel about Jada Pinkett Smith’s call to action? I know people came down on the Smiths, but I’ve met Jada and I’ve had a conversation with her and I think she’s brilliant and just a dope person. What Will [Smith] said on Good Morning America also stuck. Let’s all think about the little brown kids — all kinds of brown: Asian, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern — who are going to sit with their families and watch this broadcast and not see one person of color nominated in any category. What kind of message does that send to them? That’s a bigger issue.
What do you remember most about watching the Oscars and seeing those people on TV? I wouldn’t be at home in my office now if it weren’t for the movies I saw as a kid and watching the Oscars. The night that Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards had such a profound impact on me. When people say to me, ‘Oh, who cares?!’ — you can’t take away the dream that was put in my heart that evening. I can still recite Halle’s speech to this day: ‘This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll…’
That just made me tear up. See what I’m saying! Powerful. I know it by heart. Oprah Winfrey talked about being a poor little brown girl in the South watching the Oscars, and seeing Sidney Poitier win for Lilies of the Field and saying to herself at that moment that she should dream a bigger dream. So let’s not lessen the importance of the Oscars. The year Ellen DeGeneres hosted, it reached 43 million people. The world is watching. And we all know people who haven’t seen the films, but will still watch the Oscars. It’s an American tradition, like the Super Bowl. How many people do you know that never watch football, but they’ll watch the Super Bowl? So to me, no one can say it’s not important, because the world is watching, and we should be embarrassed.