Lena Waithe had a pretty stellar year in 2017. She became the first black woman ever to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series. The win was for an episode of the Netflix show, “Master of None,” which she co-wrote with Aziz Ansari. Waithe, who also performs in the series, largely based the episode on her own coming out story.
But now, in 2018, Waithe is up to some even bigger things. The new Showtime series she created called “The Chi," about her hometown of Chicago, was just renewed for a second season.
Next month, Waithe will make her major studio film debut in the movie, “Ready Player One,” directed by Steven Spielberg.
And in this year of #MeToo, she’s become an outspoken advocate for the Time's Up initiative. At the Sundance Film Festival late last month, Waithe represented Time's Up at the Respect Rally, which coincided with the women’s marches across the country:
When Lena Waithe stopped by The Frame studios after Sundance, she talked with host John Horn about "The Chi," "Master of None," and what it means to be a black woman who's out in Hollywood.
On her speech at the Respect Rally at Sundance and being openly gay in Hollywood:
I feel like a voice like mine should be a part of those gatherings. I think the voices that are at things like that should feel like society. Because sometimes those voices are voices of caucasian people, pretty people, important people. But the truth is [that] those that are marginalized ... often need to pipe up because we have a different perspective. And I still find it quite sad that there are so few of us that are out, cause the numbers just don't add up. If you look at all of black Hollywood and say Oh, just Lena, Wanda Sykes, Samira Wiley and RuPaul are the gay ones. It's like, that doesn't make sense. Look, I respect everybody and they can live their lives the way they live their lives, but I think it's really important for us to show ourselves.
On the other television shows that inspired her when she was first writing "The Chi" and how she wanted to portray the lives of black people on the show:
It's interesting because a lot of people say, Oh, it reminds me of "The Wire." Well, that's a simple comparison because it's a bunch of black people on TV. But, to me, "The Corner" was more of a reference point. "House of Cards," "Downton Abbey," "The Practice" — [shows] where you have characters that are really flawed, but you can't help but reach out to them and think about how much alike you are with those characters. And that's really what I was trying to do. I really wanted to show us what we look like when we grieve, when we love, when we laugh, when we play, when we're faced with very difficult decisions, when we're chasing a dream, when a dream is deferred. Those are things that I don't often see with us. Often times there's just easy boxes to put black people in — rapper, singer, athlete, drug dealer. And for me, I was like, What about if one of them is a chef? What about if one of them is a hustler? What if one of them is a kid? What if one of them don't have a job?
On the #MeToo movement and the sexual-coercion allegation against Aziz Ansari:
Here's the truth — in every situation, it's not always black-and-white. And I know that's simple for people, and it's easy for people to [ask], Whose side are you on? There are no sides, really, in some of these scenarios. I'm not on Harvey Weinstein's side, I'm not on Kevin Spacey's side. But I think you have take each situation [individually]. You can't just say, Well, I'm on this person's team, or I'm on that person's team. It doesn't work that way.
I think a big thing is, we have to have a dialogue. And I think if we're unwilling to have a dialogue we're gonna continue to keep hitting our heads against the wall. We have to start reeducating ourselves about what consent is, what's appropriate behavior at the workplace. We have to create codes of conduct. Those are things that we need. 'Cause also I think there's an element of — how do you know if you're breaking a rule if you aren't aware of the rules? Or how do you know what appropriate behavior is if no one's ever communicated to you what appropriate behavior is? Even though some people may assume, Well, of course we all know what appropriate behavior is, but some people may not know.
It's about really educating ourselves and not stepping in it and just [saying], Oh, I'm sorry. My bad — and sort of keep going. But it's about really sitting with yourself and educating yourself in terms of what consent is, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like. And all of us starting to really act accordingly based on this new information that I think we have now. We all gotta start talking to each other, start educating each other.
On the importance of having more diverse voices speaking and empowered in Hollywood:
I think the biggest thing is, with success comes change. So I think for every successful venture where a person of color or a woman is given equal pay as a man, and you see how the world doesn't implode, you see that things actually work out, or things are a little bit smoother because of that. I think that's what will hopefully change people's minds. 'Cause there's this idea of like, No, white guys have to be in control of everything or things will go to s---. But the truth is, things have gone to s--- and white guys are in control of everything. So let's maybe try something different and something new. No shade to white guys, but I think that it's someone else's turn.