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“That’s my mission — to level the playing field”: Lena Waithe on lifting marginalized voices

The Emmy-winning writer of Master of None and The Chi discusses the Hollywood pipeline and joining Time’s Up.

The Chi creator Lena Waithe has big plans.
Showtime

Lena Waithe has had one hell of a year.

The writer, producer, and actor co-wrote one of Master of None’s best episodes to date with season two’s “Thanksgiving,” an ambitious retrospective of her character’s life over several holidays in which she struggles to get her mother (played by Angela Bassett!) to accept that her daughter is gay. The episode went on to win Waithe an Emmy for Comedy Writing — making her the first black woman to do so, ever.

Meanwhile, Waithe was developing her own drama. In creating, writing, and producing The Chi — premiering tonight on Showtime — Waithe has made an empathetic love letter to the South Side of Chicago, the place she grew up that has become a frequent target of oblivious disdain.

And when the new year rolled around, Waithe was announced as one of the 300 women in Hollywood who’ve come together to form Time’s Up, an initiative to combat sexual harassment and workplace abuse across multiple industries that has already raised $15 million to act as a legal fund for victims who want to fight back against abusive situations, but are unable to do so on their own.

The supportive structure of Time’s Up goes hand in hand with Waithe’s personal ethos. As she told me in an interview at Showtime’s press tour for The Chi — held the day before the Golden Globes, where Waithe and many other attendees will be wearing black in support of the #MeToo movement — she has no interest in basking in her own success without offering a ladder to other marginalized voices who need help in order to get where she is now.

“We’re going to put our money where our mouths are to help make sure new writers’ projects have the funding and the development they need before they get taken out to the market,” Waithe said. Through her own production company, she hopes to encourage potential buyers to shift their perspective from “We want to be in the Lena Waithe business!” to “Lena Waithe has great taste!”

“[I’d like them to say] ‘This is a really cool young writer, this person might be the next Lena Waithe.’ I hate that, but I know how this business works,” Waithe said. “So for me, I want to go, ‘There’s some mini-me’s out there, there’s mini-Donalds [Glover], mini-Justins [Simiens], there’s mini-Issas [Rae]’ … I don’t want to take all those opportunities. I want to spread those out.”

Read on for more, straight from Waithe, on why she finds it so important to bring others up with her, why her new show The Chi means so much to her, and what she hopes Time’s Up can accomplish.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Framke

So you’re here for your own show, which must be weird and pretty cool.

Lena Waithe

Exactly! It’s a unique experience. I’m used to coming here with a band, you know what I mean? It’s like when Beyoncé comes with Destiny’s Child and she’s flanked, and then she goes solo. [laughs]

It’s a huge accomplishment for me to have my first show that’s created by me and written by me, and for it to be a drama is also kinda fun. It gives people a broader sense of who I am and my voice. I feel like they got an idea of who I am, and I think The Chi will kind of surprise them a little bit.

Caroline Framke

Has The Chi been in the works for a long time, or was it inspired more recently? Is this the kind of show you’ve always wanted to do?

Lena Waithe

I wrote it like three years ago, and people took to it. It’s funny, I never looked at it like, “This is it, this is gonna be the thing.” I’d also written a half-hour [comedy] a year or two prior … I’m close to getting that going, which I’m really excited about. It’s loosely based on my twenties, moving to LA and being a queer brown girl and all that goes with that.

But I’d written [The Chi] because I’m from Chicago, and I feel like black men are being dehumanized so much. I know the stories coming out of the city, which are all true, and these are things we should be dealing with. But there’s also human beings that are living in that city who are just trying to make an honest living, and raise their kids, and go to church when they can. I just kind of feel like people weren’t seeing them as human beings. Dick Wolf is covering the firefighters and the police officers and the lawyers and all that kind of stuff [on his trio of NBC shows, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and Chicago Med], and I’m just like, I don’t care about the system. I care about the people the system affects.

That’s really where The Chi came from. I was also reading a lot of [James] Baldwin at the time, and he wrote so beautifully about [black people] in his prose and stories that were fictitious, but felt like they were about real people. That was really my mission with the show: to show us as a normalcy.

I know [The Chi is] constantly getting compared to The Wire, because it’s a show about a bunch of black people. But luckily, since you’ve seen some of it, you can say, “Nah, it’s not at all.” The Wire was all about the system.

Caroline Framke

So many Chicago-based stories say the same things over and over again. What did you want your show to get right that they get wrong?

Lena Waithe

Just the humanity, and the real, you know? We curse. We smoke. We have sex, with people we sometimes shouldn’t be having sex with. We have a real sense of spirituality, even when we’re lost. And we’re always searching, always pondering and thinking where we want our lives to go. “Why am I here? What am I doing?” We cry. We pray.

Those things, I don’t think people know how we do them. And I know very well, because I was that girl, I was that person. I am that person. That’s what we wanted to show.

Which, again, it shows my being so influenced by Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorraine Hansberry. You can look at [Hansberry’s] A Raisin in the Sun today and have a clear understanding of what the black experience is, because Lorraine does such a beautiful job of taking a specific thing — that just happened to be in Chicago, and just happened to have a character named Lena in it — and be so eloquent, and so honest, and so raw.

A white dude couldn’t write that play. Couldn’t. A white dude shouldn’t have rewritten that play! [Playwright Bruce Norris wrote the 2010 play Clybourne Park as a spinoff to A Raisin in the Sun.] ‘Cause it would look and feel different, and wouldn’t have had the longevity it had. Same thing with something like The Color Purple; you read that book and Alice Walker’s words about what it means, or Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. These works of art have lasted so long because it’s people talking about their people.

Even like Spike Lee’s stuff; people look at things like School Daze and Do The Right Thing, which is him holding up a mirror to us. But it’s okay if he’s holding up the mirror versus someone else, who’s an outsider. So for me, it was like, I wanted to tell our story from the inside looking out, versus from the outside looking in.

Caroline Framke

It’s from a lived-in experience, and there are already so many lived-in white experiences on TV.

Lena Waithe

Oh my god, yeah. And it’s that in movies too, you know what I’m saying? I wish there was a black Lady Bird, I wish there was a black Call Me By Your Name. Some people might say that was Moonlight, and I’m like, the thing is, there’s a Call Me By Your Name every year. We get a Moonlight every once in a blue moon … and that speaks to privilege. I love Lady Bird, and I love Call Me By Your Name, because I’m a black person who just loves great art. But I can’t help but look at them and go, “Agh, I wish we got a black version of this every year!”

Caroline Framke

It’s true that we get lots coming-of-age stories that look very similar.

Lena Waithe

You do.

Caroline Framke

I remember after Moonlight came out, Barry Jenkins said on the New York Times podcast Still Processing that he wished more people would ask him about the filmmaking more, and not just the politics of the movie, since he put so much of himself and what he had learned from film into it. I’m sure you’re about to get a stream of very similar questions about The Chi. Is there one you wish you’d get asked more?

Lena Waithe

“Who are some television writers that influenced and inspired you?” Not TV shows: writers. Because that gives me an opportunity to talk about Susan Fales-Hill, who was the original showrunner of A Different World, and helped to shape it and make it what it was. Or Debbie Allen, the person who directed all those episodes and really worked closely with Susan to help give that show an identity. And Yvette Lee Bowser, who worked with them and went on to create Living Single and a bunch of other shows, who’s now showrunning [Netflix’s] Dear White People. They also hired Gina Prince-Bythewood — who went on to create Love and Basketball and all these different things — as a writers’ apprentice on A Different World.

I just want an opportunity to talk about these amazing television writers. People like Wendy Calhoun, who wrote on Empire; Ayanna Floyd, who wrote on The Chi for a little bit but is just a legend in the game. Even Bentley Evans, who was a part of making Martin what it was, and again, giving it an identity; Martin was a huge deal, those first couple seasons are pitch perfect. You go back and watch that first season of Martin, and it’s like, wow. They were doing something unique, and fresh, and raw, and special.

Just these amazing writers who are often behind the scenes, and you don’t know their names, you wouldn’t recognize them if they walked by you on the street. But they’re really important, and very important to my journey. So I’d just like to say these writers’s names, because often you don’t get an opportunity to. People just ask, like, “What made you want to write this?” And it’s like, well, what made me want to write [The Chi] is because I’m a black person and I wanted to tell the story, but the truth is, a lot of us are affected by those that came before us.

Caroline Framke

You’ve been really open about wanting to use your success to bring up other people in the entertainment industry, to make it more of a ladder. How do you hope to do that?

Lena Waithe

I know so many phenomenal writers who happen to be people of color, who happen to be part of the queer community, who happen to be trans. I want to make sure they have an opportunity as well. Because the more stories we have, then we will start getting some black Call Me By Your Names, we will start getting some Latino versions of Lady Bird. It’s really important that they have a platform. And pretty soon, that list of brown people the industry goes to for everything will get longer, and longer, and longer. The playing field will be leveled, and that’s my mission: to level the playing field.

It ain’t going to happen in a day, it ain’t going to happen in a week. It’s going to take a long time, and a lot of me going out there, shaking hands, reading scripts, developing material. That’s what I can do, is make sure I’m being a soldier and I’m at the forefront — and being a protector as well of these young voices. Their spirits can easily be broken by this town. So my mission is to protect them to make sure they have what they need to have a long, lovely, amazing career and be up on as many Emmy and Golden Globe and Oscar stages as possible, because they deserve to be there as well.

Caroline Framke

You recently became a part of the Time’s Up initiative. There’s so much to focus on with that, because, y’know, things are bad everywhere. What are your priorities with the movement? What are you hoping Time’s Up can do that maybe hasn’t happened before?

Lena Waithe

I think the biggest thing is just to create a barrier around not just women, but anyone who’s othered in any way, shape, or form — to make sure they have a place to go or someone to call if they’re in an uncomfortable place or abusive situation. They need a line of defense, and I think Time’s Up really has the potential to be that.

My spirit is rejuvenated when I leave these meetings. I’m sitting there with all these amazing people — from actresses to producers to directors to execs — and we’re talking about ways to create a support system, ways to be helpful, ways to educate each other on things the other may not know. It’s really, really great. And I think it’s about time this sort of thing was formed, and I’m so proud to be a part of it. I will proudly be wearing black at the Golden Globes. I hope that everyone understands that what we’re doing is really for the greater good.

People will go, “Are you nervous to talk about this?” And it’s like, no, there’s no way to spin this into a bad thing! If they do, that’s their conscience, and they can deal with that. But at the end of the day, it’s all good. There’s nothing bad that can come out of this. Nothing.

The Chi premieres January 7 at 10 pm on Showtime. A truncated version of the first episode is currently streaming on YouTube.