Every generation breaks the norms of the previous generation, and a clear example of this is representation in the entertainment industry. One of the people on the front lines of revolutionizing new norms is writer and actor Lena Waithe.
Lena Waithe was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1984. She didn’t initially intend to become an actor but she knew she wanted to write for television since she was a kid.
When she attended Columbia College Chicago, she earned a degree in Cinema and Television Arts upon graduating in 2006. She worked hard to get her foot in the door of the entertainment industry, be that working at movie theaters or even Blockbuster Video, before she moved to Los Angeles and became an assistant to Mara Brock Akil, executive producer of the popular UPN sitcom Girlfriends.
She jumped from series to series as a writer, including the 2012 Nickelodeon teen sitcom How to Rock and the long-running FOX procedural Bones.
The first thing she worked on that got my attention was Justin Simien’s groundbreaking 2014 indie film Dear White People, which Waithe helped produce. Some big studios were interested in distributing that film but Simien chose an independent distributor which gave writer and director Simien more creative control, much to the film’s benefit because it was like nothing I had seen before at the time.
The film focused on the racial tension at a fictional ivy league school from the POV of the school’s black students. It was a great movie but I will always remember it most fondly as the film that both introduced me to and made me fall in love with Tessa Thompson.
Dear White People came at a time when I was longing for more quality black cinema from someone other than Tyler Perry. Fortunately it was a harbinger of a new wave of high-quality and very distinct art from black filmmakers including indie films like Top Five, Moonlight and Blindspotting, blockbusters like Get Out, Girls Trip, Creed and Black Panther and television programs like Empire, Black-ish, Insecure and Atlanta.
Lena Waithe was riding this wave while simultaneously contributing to it significantly.
She had acted every once in a while while getting her career going, but her first main acting role was Denise in Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix comedy Master of None. She not only starred in the show but she co-wrote it, earning a Primetime Emmy Award alongside Ansari for the season 2 episode “Thanksgiving,” becoming the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for writing comedy. Waithe said “Thanksgiving” was actually based on her own experience coming out as a lesbian and this would not be the last time she would mine from real life for her writing.
Following Master of None, Waithe has guest-starred in other high-profile shows like Transparent, This Is Us, Westworld and the Netflix adaptation of Dear White People, plus high-profile movies like Ready Player One (2018) and Pixar’s Onward (2020), but her main forte is writing and she continues to both write and produce original and ambitious films and TV shows.
After getting on the map with her Emmy win, Waithe was able to get her own television creations on the air, the first being The Chi, a drama that premiered on Showtime in 2018 set in the south side of Chicago that tells the coming-of-age stories of several young people having tough times in the inner city and how their lives become connected. It is actually an authentic look at life in Chicago’s south side and Waithe’s intention was to paint the town where she grew up in a more nuanced way than what had previously been done.
Her biggest film writing gig so far has been the romantic drama Queen & Slim directed by Melina Matsoukas in her feature film directorial debut and starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya as a couple who goes on the run after killing a police officer in self defense during a traffic stop. It was a gripping fugitive story and the fact that the couple was black added a layer of timely context to the film’s suspense.
But her most personal and autobiographical work is her passion project Twenties, a comedy that premiered on BET in 2020 following a long journey to get it on the air after getting passed on by TBS and Hulu. The show followed the lives of a young queer black woman named Hattie and her two straight best friends Marie and Nia as they navigate Los Angeles trying to enter the world of professional show business, and it mirrors much of Waithe’s own experience when she first moved to L.A. from Chicago.
The thing I like about Waithe is that she never creates stories that try to fit the Hollywood norm. She actively does things that have never been done in film or television before.
She insists on being as authentic as possible in her writing and that means elevating the voices of people who Hollywood regularly ignores, like queer people of color. Her growing fame and respect in Hollywood gives her more leeway to tell these kinds of stories which are sorely needed.
Waithe acknowledges that people act like women like her (masculine-presenting women and black lesbians in general) don’t exist which makes it all the more great that shows like Twenties exist. It is not the first show that centers on lesbians but it is the first that centers on a lesbian of color.
During Waithe’s acceptance speech at the Emmys, she said it was the things that make us different that are our superpowers, and she walks the walk as well by supporting black artists in the entertainment industry through her role as co-chair of the Committee of Black Writers at the Writers Guild.
When cast in Master of None by Allison Jones as a character who Ansari and Yang initially intended to be a straight white woman, Waithe said the visibility of women like her was the main source of her excitement for taking the role. She understands the importance of visibility on screen and how inspiring it can be when you see a woman on television that is the opposite of feminine when Hollywood constantly pays more attention to women who are traditionally girly when casting leads. I’m happy to see Waithe redefining Hollywood by showing us what life is like outside of Hollywood.