Lena Waithe ha been crowned ‘TV Producer of the Year’ by The Hollywood Reporter.
The Emmy award-winning powerhouse spoke with THR about lessons learned from The Chi‘s on-set troubles, the semi-autobiographical ‘Twenties” frustrating path to making it on-air, and how she’s pushes past Hollywood’s insistence on ignoring Black talent.
Check out an excerpt from the interview:
Twenties put Jonica T. Gibbs, a masculine-presenting gay woman, at the top of the call sheet — a first for TV. Where do you think audiences are at in terms of queer representation on TV?
People have these ideas of what a gay woman looks like. There’s a chance I may fit into a stereotype of what a lesbian is because I’m a little more masculine-presenting. What I found in getting feedback on Twenties is that people didn’t expect for her character Hattie to be so silly and warm. Because of how she presents, they think she’ll be more aggressive — not listening to Whitney Houston while watching YouTube videos.
That said, the bisexual community still doesn’t have a ton of representation on television. There are still people whom we haven’t explored — people who identify as asexual, nonbinary, gender queer, trans. It’s important that people of a queer experience help tell those stories. Sometimes people ask me, “Hey, Lena, so you gay. I want to be educated about the trans community.” Well, you should speak to a person who is of the trans experience. Just because we fall under the same LGBTQIA+ umbrella doesn’t mean that I can educate you about every single letter.
It’s hard to imagine a character like Hattie on TV six years ago, when you wrote her. Is that why it had such a long road to the air?
I just wanted to write about my experience being in Los Angeles and having two straight best friends. There’s this idea that all queer people only hang out with queer people.
It hopped around a lot.
Hulu originally put it to development. It didn’t go. The pilot you see was shot and paid for by TBS. When I jumped to Boomerang at BET, Scott Mills said, “If TBS doesn’t do Twenties, we want it.” I said, “TBS ain’t that dumb, but thanks for the heads-up.” Sure enough, Time Warner had the merger. Kevin Reilly, who everybody said was going to have thoughts, called and said, “I do not have a single note for you on this pilot, but we can’t do it because of this merger.” I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough ’cause I knew I had a bird in the hand.
How did it evolve over those five years?
If you go back to the pilot presentation, the bones of it never changed. What ultimately happened is that I became a public figure. I got cast on Master of None. Because of that, I got Ready Player One. I won an Emmy. And then I was on the cover of Vanity Fair. I remember saying, “If somebody ever asks me on the red carpet what do I want to do next, I’m going to always say Twenties.” I wrote Twenties before The Chi. The Chi just happened to go first.
Why do you think that is?
It was an easier sell. It was gritty, it was dark, it was Black. But I remember, with The Chi’s character of Brandon [Jason Mitchell], I was like, “He’s a Black boy with a dream.” It was hard to have that conversation. For some reason, it just felt foreign [to executives]. That’s no one’s fault. I don’t think anyone was trying to be racist. They just didn’t have the understanding. That’s the reckoning that’s happening right now. Black people have always had hopes and dreams. And I think that has been very difficult sometimes for white execs to understand and to allow us the space to write stories about that. I remember being so frustrated on those calls. I was like, “What is so hard to understand?”
How have calls like that changed for you?
The truth is, the notes process changes the higher up you go. Now I have to trust myself even more and talk to the people around me. I need to have checks and balances. Otherwise, you’ll put stuff out that’s just for you. (Laughs.)
Twenties was renewed, but do you worry about it finding a bigger audience?
I knew it would be a challenge having the show on BET in terms of getting an audience. BET is not known for their scripted programming. What [CBS chief creative officer and Showtime Networks CEO] David Nevins did for us, overseeing all of Viacom, was put Twenties on Showtime linear. That’s huge because there are people who watch Showtime and don’t even know where BET is on their cable dial.
What any artist wants is the strongest team with the most access. You’re more successful when you have a team that thinks outside of the box but also a team that has friends in high places. Oftentimes those people aren’t people of color, or women. But I do think that’s changing. My team looks like a Benetton ad, but I’m not successful unless they are fucking phenomenal. And they are.
What needs to happen is not just for talent to demand, “Oh, you need to have an inclusive team.” It’s about the industry supporting Black and brown people coming up who want to be agents or managers and teaching them how to be the best in the business. Some of that comes from the hustle, but a lot of it is education. Sometimes you have to be told, “Don’t work in that mail room, do that one,” or “Oh, you don’t need to meet this person. Have lunch with this woman.” It’s chess.
For the full interview, click here. Congrats Lena!