Hometown Hero

With a role in a new Steven Spielberg film, an Emmy under her belt, her own show about to launch, and Hollywood watching her every move, Lena Waithe is shaking up an industry and paying it forward at the same time. By Luke Crisell. Photographed by Joyce Kim.

At first glance, the apartment Lena Waithe shares with her partner in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles is fairly nondescript. Small, well-appointed kitchen. Smart gray couch pushed up against a window. A selection of books, color coded in small piles on the shelves. But look closer, and there on the coffee table are some photographs of her standing next to Aziz Ansari, holding an Emmy. Next to the DVD player are some movie screeners of films still in theaters, in cardboard sleeves with “For Your Consideration” printed on the covers. On the breakfast bar, a “talent” pass for the Vulture Festival which took place the previous night at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel and where Waithe co-hosted an advance screening of The Chi, the forthcoming Showtime original series she created and is co-executive producing —alongside Oscar-winning composer Common. Upstairs is Waithe’s office, where she writes some of the most sought-after scripts in Hollywood and oversees an ever-expanding network of mentees, who reach out via social media seeking advice on how to get into the industry from a woman who seems to break new ground with every step she takes.

A writer, activist, and actor, Waithe has been working in Hollywood for more than a decade, but right now seems to be her moment. “I knew what I wanted to be very early on,” she says, sitting at her dining room table, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, her hair tied up on her head. “I wanted to be a writer—that’s why I went to Columbia College, took the steps I took, and studied writing and producing and television.” After graduating from the Chicago school in 2006 she moved to L.A., working as a production assistant and later the assistant to the writer-director Gina Pryce-Bythewood (she has a bumblebee tattooed on her neck from when she worked with Pryce-Bythewood on The Secret Life of Bees). As Waithe worked her way up in the industry—assisting Ava DuVernay, among others—she was simultaneously developing her own material, including the pilot for The Chi, which is based on her experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago. It was that script which landed her a job writing for the TV show Bones, and eventually she scored a gig acting, as Denise on Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s critically acclaimed comedy on Netflix.

Denise, a wry, wise friend of Ansari’s Dev, has a scene-stealing presence, but Waithe’s skills as a writer weren’t called upon until the second season when Ansari and Alan Yang, the show’s cocreator, called her in to discuss a Denise-focussed episode they were considering. Upon hearing Waithe talk about her coming-out story, Yang and Ansari insisted she write it for the show. The episode, “Thanksgiving,” won Waithe an Emmy nomination; she was the first African-American woman ever to be in the running. So perhaps it was no surprise that, when she won, Ansari stood back while Waithe delivered an emotional, searing speech that had the audience on their feet.

“Thanksgiving,” based on Waithe’s personal experiences and taking place on the holiday each year between 1995 and 2017, is often funny, occasionally beautiful and entirely rare television. She was developing the script while filming Ready Player One, a feature directed by Steven Spielberg due out next March (she’s not able to discuss it much, but describes Spielberg as “a giant who doesn’t make people feel small” and the experience as “life changing”) and Ansari flew over to hole up in a hotel room with her for three days to finish it. “The biggest thing was I got complete creative control,” she says of the episode, which she has previously likened as “the difference between being a slave and being free.”

“What [winning the Emmy] said to me, and to my other partners that I’m working with on shows, is, ‘We can trust her now,’” she says. “I don’t like to think of art as a competition, because it isn’t. All art is important and valid, but for whatever reason, the Academy members said, ‘This is our top choice for the Emmy.’ And it sends a ripple effect throughout the industry. It was really important for me to be embraced as a queer woman of color telling that story. Because it said something to other people that look like me, or have a story similar to mine.”

The historic significance of the award is not lost on Waithe, who sees the moment as an opportunity to be seized not just by her, but by other young women looking to make a change in an industry that’s in dire need of it.

“It is an opportunity,” she says. “An opportunity to shed light on other writers, to be able to make projects that ordinarily they might not be so inclined to do. But because I have Emmy award winner next to my name, they might go, ‘Oh, maybe she’s right.’ My thing is: I just wanna run with it. It is the beginning. It’s the beginning of my career.” For Waithe, the fact that “Thanksgiving” is based on her own experiences only adds power to the effect. “How amazing is it that it’s my story, you know?” she says. “And a coming-out story, no less! Which I think is really important for people who are out, people who are thinking about coming out, people who are questioning their sexuality. It’s art, but it’s also activism at the same time, without trying to be. We’re not standing on a soapbox, we’re just saying, ‘Hey, this is a thing that happened to me. If you can relate to it, cool. If not, maybe you can still see the humanity in it.’”

Since the Emmy win, Waithe has become inundated with scripts from hopeful writers seeking advice or a break. She has a team of interns who help sift through them and provide feedback. She reads the ones the interns deem worth her time, and takes the task seriously. “I’m a bit more hands on,” she says. “As a mentor, I’m more of a helicopter parent. I’m more about the mechanics. If a mentee of mine is not a strong writer, I’m like, ‘OK, let’s pay for you to do writing classes.’” She pauses. “I just wanna help more people.”

While Waithe considers herself a TV writer first and the acting and activism “icing,” she’s passionate about the causes close to her heart. For her, activism is “shedding light on an issue that people don’t otherwise think about. And as a queer woman of color, that’s really important. That’s why it’s important for me to be out—it’s important for me to be visible because I do make people think about that community that’s often othered and sometimes ignored or forgotten about, especially in the political landscape. It’s like, ‘Shit, y’all wanna make me the poster child? Cool.’”

Waithe and her partner are extremely involved in the LGBTQIA community in Los Angeles, and another cause close to their hearts is the Equal Justice Initiative, helmed by the lawyer Bryan Stevenson and based out of Montgomery, Alabama. Waithe was inspired by Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, a critically acclaimed true story that led Nicolas Kristof of The New York Times to write that he “may, indeed, be America’s Mandela.” “He is helping those who are poor and brown and who didn’t get a fair shake in their case,” Waithe says. “ As a brown person and someone who did not grow up with a lot of money, I know how when you dehumanize a group of people, it becomes easier to kill them. It becomes easier to not care when they die. I think a big part of what he’s doing and what I try to do in my line of work is to humanize these young, black people. To not sexualize them, to not demonize them, but to really make them be seen as human. We have to do that as a society—to start seeing them as human beings.”

This was partly the inspiration for The Chi, which premieres in January on Showtime, a network Waithe calls “my Harvard.” “I feel like there’s a lot of news stories coming out about Chicago that felt like they were written by people who had never been in the city, who were foreign to it,” she says. “There’s a humanity to the city, and the people that live there are not monsters. They’re human beings, and even though gun violence is definitely an issue, I think people are just looking at it and thinking that they’re a bunch of savages. There’s a reason why there’s such turmoil in the city, and it’s not the people’s fault. I think it’s systematic. I feel like the community is sort of being blamed for the city’s problems. And I think it’s actually the other way around.”

Waithe actually produced a pilot for The Chi a few years ago, but then remade it, bringing in a new director, Rick Famuyiwa. “It was fine, but I wanted to make it great—I’m always watching out for greatness,” she says. “I decided to write something because that’s my weapon of choice. And I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I wanna write this thing and get it on TV and change the world.’ It’s not about making people look perfect; I’m not in the business of doing that. I know some people feel like we, as black people, need to show [ourselves] in a very positive light. I think that’s another form of propaganda. I’m trying to just show it all, negative stuff, too.”

As the old rules of Hollywood are being rewritten in real time, the predominantly white, male demographic being upended, Waithe and friends like Donald Glover are on the bleeding edge of a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers who are shining a light on the people and places who have often been overlooked. “I look at it as a tremendous opportunity and a real responsibility,” she says. “I don’t want a platform without saying something—it’s such a rare opportunity to be at the forefront of a movement. Because people are looking at you to say, ‘What do we do now? Where do we go now?’ I wanna inspire people to tell their stories in whichever way they see fit.”

For Waithe, the important thing is ensuring she maintains the momentum she and others have built, promoting new talent at every opportunity. “We have to make this more than a moment,” she says. “We have to continue to make great work and inspire those behind us. I want to be a beacon of light for those that feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”