In Lena We Trust
photos by Gizelle Hernandez
MARCH 4, 2019
Lena Waithe speaks in Proverbs. She talks fast and assuredly. She never takes more than a couple seconds to mull over a question; weaving in and out of points swiftly, always managing to land on a little nugget of wisdom. She does it so masterfully that it feels like a practiced performance; she always hits her mark, delivering wisdom in well-crafted soundbites. Like any good preacher or prophet, she knows this is what the people want.
But this isn't just a performance. This is who Waithe is; the kind of person who feels like a fount of wisdom. And this ability to speak with authority and sagacity off-the-cuff is how most of the world was first introduced to Waithe more than two years ago when she accepted her Emmy award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for Master of None. Waithe barely had anything prepared—she says she wasn't even sure she was going to win, though you wouldn't know that by the way she delivered her speech. It was a great moment—historic, even. Because it was in that speech that Waithe delivered perhaps her most memorable Proverb of all, directed specifically to her LGBTQ family: “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers."
But there's another bit of Waithe-on-stage wisdom I like even more.
It happened at an event honoring Love and Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Waithe was paying tribute to Prince-Bythewood, having once served as the director's assistant. Waithe recounted the time she was given the task of getting Whoopi Goldberg on the phone. It's the kind of story perfect for a dinner party—equal parts funny and inspiring—and it involves Waithe hunting down the number for The View, then Goldberg's assistant, then Goldberg herself—and getting hung up on several times in the process. It's not an unconventional story, anyone who's ever been an assistant probably has a similar one of their own, but it was the message Waithe delivered afterward that gives pause, and reminds all those people out there that there is life after being an assistant. “The moral of that story is that there's nothing I cannot do," Waithe declared. “With a little bit of help, a little bit of resource, a little bit of swag. I'm gonna get there."
For Waithe, “there" is, in part, L.A., where she moved full-time in 2006, 10 years before anyone knew her name. After graduating from Columbia College Chicago, where she studied television writing and producing—including one semester spent in L.A., writing spec scripts—Waithe worked at Blockbuster. It was that Blockbuster job that took her, by way of a transfer, from Chicago and to the West Coast for good. Blockbuster was also where she binge-watched shows, studying them in the process, getting to know how they were made, so she could one day make them too. It seems like an unorthodox entry into the industry, but, as Waithe told me, “I don't come from a show business family." She explained that, by being raised by her grandmother and mother who worked odd jobs, she couldn't have been further away from Hollywood. “I really did have to come out here and pound the pavement and figure it out,"Waithe said. “I didn't have any connections, can't make any calls, but I was just like, 'I'm going to give it everything I have.'" What she had were her talents and drive, and so she set about sharpening those. And that involved a lot of work.
Waithe's pre-Emmys resume is long and varied. Her first gig in the industry was an internship working for Tracey Edmonds at Edmonds Entertainment. After that, she started working on MTV's The Real World, “just to make ends meet." She assisted Mara Brock Akil during the last season of Girlfriends, and Akil then recommended Waithe to Prince-Bythewood, who then recommended Waithe to Ava DuVernay. After that, Waithe was accepted into two writing programs, got an agent, and booked her first writing job for the Nickelodeon show How to Rock, starring Master P's daughter, Cymphonique Miller.
This might sound like a direct road to success, but it wasn't that simple. On How to Rock, Waithe was “paper-teamed," which basically means she was put together with another writer and they shared one paycheck. And there was still a learning curve. “My first time being in the room, I wasn't really strong in the room," Waithe said. “I didn't shine. I wasn't really good."
But she worked at it, and found more opportunities to hone her skills, writing for the television series Bones for a couple of years, and then doing a brief acting stint on Lisa Kudrow's show The Comeback. In between the assisting and the paper-teaming, Waithe also had a number of side passion projects that didn't bring in any money but helped sate her creative appetite. There were the web series Hello Cupid, Body of a Barbie, and Toy; there was the short film Save Me and the viral video “Shit Black Girls Say." Another web series she worked on at the time, Twenties, which follows the adventures of a queer black girl and her two straight best friends, was eventually backed by Queen Latifah's company, Flavor Unit Entertainment, and optioned in 2014 by BET. A pilot was ordered last year by TBS. At the time, though, people weren't exactly excited about what Waithe considered to be a diverse reimagining of Girls. “I remember one particular network saying, 'Oh, well, Girls exists on TV, maybe your show can just live online,'" she recalled. “And it very much felt like, 'You can be on the bus, but you should sit in the back of it.' Like, why is Lena Waithe's journey so much different than Lena Dunham's?"
There's an obvious answer to this. It's something Angela Bassett's character said during the Master of None “Thanksgiving" episode that Waithe won the Emmy for: Black women in this country have to work three times as hard in life to get half as far. Add to that the fact that Waithe is a masculine-facing queer woman, and success could start to feel even more distant.
But self-pity isn't something Waithe is about. She talked to me about the way in which her upbringing could be seen as a negative cliche: “a single mom in South Side Chicago, lived in my grandmother's house with my mom and sister until I was 12 years old." But Waithe never felt like she was at a disadvantage. She knew, from a young age, that she had a talent for writing, so rather than run from that, she embraced her gift.
“I'm a big Whitney Houston fan and, if you look at her interviews, if someone asks her 'what made you want to sing?' she's like, 'This is the gift which I was given, and so I leaned into it,'" Waithe said. “This is the gift God gave me and so, rather than suppressing it, I embraced it, and ran toward it and did all of the things one has to do in order to really chase one's dream, which is sacrifice things."
I think of it as art.
I think of it as more about love."
Waithe continued, perhaps reflecting on Houston's own cautionary tale of a career: “Mind you, we are bigger than the gifts that we're given. I'm an entertainer, and that is, in a way, the blessing that I wear on my sleeve. It's also the cross I bear, because, as we see with people who are very talented at one particular thing, they sometimes let the gift eat them, rather than let the gift serve them and be an asset to their life."
When talking about gifts and blessings, what we're really talking about is luck. And people like to talk about stars and their rise to fame in terms of luck, not just in the sense of their inherent talent but also in terms of opportunity: “They were in the right place at the right time," or, “They knew someone who knew someone," or, “They took a chance, and it paid off." The same kind of luck could be said to be present in Waithe's career, but it would discount the decade's worth of work and hustle she put in to make her luck pay off for her.
But chance did play a part in Waithe's success, just not in the way she'd initially intended. As Waithe has said, her big break wasn't supposed to involve being on the small screen herself, she only wanted to be behind the camera. But while Waithe actually sold her script for The Chi before she appeared on Master of None, she decided to, well, take a chance on acting, and forget about limiting herself. She told me, “I got a little frustrated because I was like, Oh, people are going to think that I'm an actor that's trying to be a writer. But, the truth is, I'm a writer that fell into acting." She got over any anxieties quickly, though, “I was just like, you know what, God knows what he's doing, my steps are ordered, this is just my journey, this is just how it looks."
Also, without having taken that risk, it's more than likely Waithe wouldn't have the name recognition she has today. She wouldn't be on the covers of magazines. And that means we wouldn't be watching her—and, more importantly, listening to her—give groundbreaking speeches at awards shows. But because Waithe has had success both in front of and behind the camera, something else significant happened: people started paying attention. “When I would go into rooms, people in the industry would just lean in a little bit more to me because they watched me on their laptop or phone or TV. So, it kind of gave me a little bit more swag," she said. Then, something else happened for Waithe: people started saying yes. And they said it a lot.
When we talked, Waithe had eight projects in the works—most of which were announced in the past year or so. They range from a miniseries about sneaker culture to a BET show based on the '90s movie Boomerang to a film titled Queen & Slim, which she describes as a combination of Bonnie and Clyde, Set It Off, and Thelma & Louise. She's busy, which is never more evident than the day of the photo shoot when she can be seen texting and responding to emails while getting her makeup done and taking calls in between shots. When the camera goes down, her phone comes out as she waits for the next set to be arranged or the next outfit pulled.
That same swag Waithe now brings into her meetings was also present in every one of her interactions and her whole persona. The slits in her eyebrows matched the two cut into her newly platinum, freshly shaved blonde hair. She was focused and efficient while moving from pose to pose; smizeing and smirking, as she moved from b-boy stance to straddling the chair. “She must've been practicing her posing over the holidays or something, because we've been doing this for two years, and I've never seen anything like this before," said one of her glam team members, just after Waithe decided to try her hand at posing on the floor. Waithe's message was clear to everyone watching: I've got shit to do, but I'm here for you right now, and I know what I'm doing.
Waithe's Emmy win created a shift not even she can deny. She now wields a kind of power she didn't possess before (like asking for a new showrunner for The Chi and getting one), but what she doesn't want is for this one achievement to define the rest of her career. She doesn't want people to go into business with her because they think she's hot right now, she wants them to do so because they understand the passion behind what she's pitching. “What I always said, after I won, was that I want to earn that honor. I don't want to just say, 'Okay, cool.' I want to make sure that all of the work that follows is just as interesting and formidable as the 'Thanksgiving' episode. And also to not try to duplicate that. I can't make the 'Thanksgiving' episode every year. I'm going to evolve as an artist."
The good thing about power, Waithe said, is that it comes with trust. She mentions BET and Paramount, who have given her complete creative control over Boomerang, as an example. “They'll have thoughts and questions or whatever and I'll go, 'Okay, got it, let me keep pushing.'" Waithe has assured everyone that the series isn't a reboot (she's actually not a fan of the genre), and is rather a continuation of the initial story told through the main character's children. But, when it comes to touching anything that many deem a classic, people get hesitant. Even Halle Berry, who starred in the 1992 film, showed reticence before signing on as an executive producer. “Boomerang was and still is such a beloved film and to do it justice would be a tall order," Berry told us via email. “And then I got 'Lena'd;' she is a powerhouse, a force of nature! Her passion and drive and her love for the original won me over, and I knew she would take the time to get it right!"
Filmmaker Tiffany Johnson, who worked with Waithe on her short film Ladylike, adds that merely being around her ambition can be infectious. “It's like her drive forces you to want to push yourself just as hard as she does… and so you do," Johnson told us. “Working with her is just that—it's about doing the work and perfecting your craft. She's also like that big sister that's always right, but you never want to tell her because secretly she already knows."
Juggling as many projects as Waithe is currently juggling is a lot for anyone—even someone who's used to multitasking. When I brought up the idea of “millennial burnout" and asked what Waithe does to take care of herself, she deflected at first: “I don't think of it as work. I think of it as art. I think of it as more about love." She added that it's the running around, the meetings, perhaps even this very interview and photo shoot, that can be exhausting. For relief, she makes sure to make time for her fiancé Alana Mayo, who is the head of Michael B. Jordan's production company, and their dog. They try to make it a point to have dinner every night and Waithe says she's also big on massages.
Waithe emphasized that she leans on her friends and community a lot. She's big on name-dropping, but not in the “look at all of these people I'm connected to" way, and rather in the “let me show my respect for the work these people I know and love are doing" way. She called out maybe 20 people, both first and last names, during our talk. There's Allison Jones, the woman who helped get her cast in Master of None. Justin Simien, with whom she worked on Dear White People, and other A-list names, like Janelle Monáe and Donald Glover. Waithe isn't afraid to shout-out people in interviews and on her Instagram. Back in the day, she also did it on her Tumblr. She's like an overly proud auntie who recognizes that, when others succeed, you should applaud them.
Waithe also recognizes that, if it weren't for the many people she made a point to mention, she wouldn't be where she is today. She works hard to be that person for other people through her different mentoring initiatives. She's not going to hold your hand, but she might help sponsor you for a writing program you can't afford or help put you in contact with other aspiring writers. “My hope is that, all of these people I'm mentoring and working with, they eventually find success in their careers, and can say, 'Lena mentored me, and this is why I'm here, this is why I was able to make this amazing thing.'" She also hopes it causes a ripple effect in the industry and “that other folks will go, 'Well, shit... hmm... maybe let me go and start mentoring so that we can have more great work.' The truth is, if you leave people just to their own devices and hope and pray that they figure it out, it'll just take longer for the business to change. All of these people will be amazing without me, I'm just trying to speed up the process."
And, of course, the more voices that are out there, the more stories that can be told from varying perspectives—specifically by creators of color. Because, as the teaser for Boomerang shows—and as Waithe herself likes to point out—there's not just one way to be Black. DuVernay's approach and influences are going to be different than Ryan Coogler's, while Barry Jenkins and Spike Lee are also going to offer wholly unique perspectives. “I'm inspired by Menace II Society just as much as I am Judy Garland," Waithe said. “I love Whitney Houston just as much as I love Bette Davis." All of these perspectives are important to create a full-screen view of Black life.
Black people always have been and always will be what Waithe is most passionate about as an artistic focus. She wants to explore “how we go through the world and how we survive; and how we hustle and how we thrive; and how we dream and how we love; and how we cry and how we die, as well." Waithe added: “Because I can't not be affected by it." She wants to be the writer version of Gordon Parks, she explained, “where he just sort of captured Black life as is. He took a picture. You can't put an opinion on a picture. People can take away different things from a photograph, but the photograph exists. It's truth, it's honest."
With two minutes left in our conversation, before Waithe darted off to her next responsibility, I asked her about legacy, and whether she thinks about hers, and what she wants it to be. I know it's a heavy word, I prefaced, but she barely hesitated with her response. “It's not a word that I'm afraid of," she started. “I don't think about it every single day while I'm working but, shit, I think about if I'm ever blessed enough to get the Cecil B. DeMille Award, what would my package look like? What will the clips look like? What will they feel like? And there will be some blips, there will be some things that you will get wrong. Nobody's career is pristine—well, maybe, Sidney Poitier—but, for me, I just want to always do things that I... that God tells me to do." She continued: “I want to be obedient, I want to listen. I don't ever want to do a thing for a check. I want to do projects because I feel like it's a story that needs to be told, in my opinion. And is something that haunts me at night or that stirs me up. Those are the kinds of things that I want to do."
Nobody is reinventing the wheel at this point, she said, but she does want to make sure she tells stories in a fresh way—even if that means pissing some people off in the process. “I get scared sometimes, I think about Queen & Slim, and I go, like, 'Either Black folks will love me or hate me,' but I can't worry about how people will receive my art. All I can do is make it to the best of my abilities and see what happens."
And so that's what she wants her legacy to be, Waithe said: “That Lena never worried about how we were gonna take it, but she knew we needed it. And whether we liked it or not, or whether we were ready for it or not. And, who knows, sometimes legacy is, like, people don't appreciate something until you're dead and gone. Sometimes, you don't appreciate the thing until 20 years later. But I just don't want to make things that are forgettable. I want to make things that make you feel something and, as long as it makes you feel something, that's all I care about." This is the word of Lena Waithe.◊
EDITOR IN CHIEF: GABRIELLE KORN
EXECUTIVE EDITOR: KRISTIN IVERSEN
BEAUTY EDITOR: JENNA IGNERI
ART DIRECTION: DANI OKON AND SARAH LUTKENHAUS
PHOTOGRAPHER: GIZELLE HERNANDEZ
VIDEOGRAPHER: CHARLOTTE PRAGER
LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
SET DESIGNER: DANIEL LUNA
STYLIST: TIFFANY HASBOURNE
HAIR STYLIST: DOMINIQUE EVANS
MAKEUP ARTIST: REBEKAH ALADDIN
STYLIST ASSISTANT: JAIIN KANG
STYLIST ASSISTANT: JHOTISHA BRIDGES
DIGITAL TECH: DAVID MAZIAR
PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: JEREMY JACKSON
PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: CHRISTIAN RAICES
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: ALISON YARDLEY
POST PRODUCTION: LENA ABUJBARA
SPECIAL THANKS TO FD STUDIOS