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Introducing "Finding the New Black" Interview Series (with Lena Waithe)

Shadow and Act By Jasmin Tiggett | Shadow and Act March 26, 2012 at 1:55PM

In the ongoing effort to introduce new and informative content here on S&A, it made sense to explore what can be called a new generation of talent within black film and TV. There are familiar names within this group – people like Dee Rees, Issa Rae, Barry Jenkins - whom we discuss often on this site. But there are still more that are doing work we should all be aware of.
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Lena Waithe
Photo by Brad Hammer

In the ongoing effort to introduce new and informative content here on S&A, it made sense to explore what can be called a new generation of talent within black film and TV. There are familiar names within this group – people like Dee Rees, Issa Rae, Barry Jenkins - whom we discuss often on this site. But there are still more that are doing work we should all be aware of.

A few major trends can be seen among this new wave of black writers, directors, and content creators, specifically –

They’re young – born in the late '70s or '80s and coming of age in the '90s, during what was arguably a heyday in black film and TV

They’re formally trained in the craft, often film school-bred

They’re busy, exploring both mainstream and independent production, and crossing between film, TV, and new media 

They’re disillusioned with Hollywood, to the extent that they don’t depend solely on the studio system to get their work made or seen

Of course these traits don’t apply to every black creative today, but you could say they speak to a certain cross section of the industry, which in my view, ought to be explored.

So for the next few weeks, I’ll be chatting with some members of this new generation rising behind the era of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry – to explore how they’re overcoming challenges that have faced black creatives for years, what they make of the industry today, and what we can expect to see from them in the future.

First up is Lena Waithe, a name you might already know. As a protégé of several Hollywood heavyweights, she has worked on The CW’s Girlfriends, The Secret Life of Bees, Notorious, and I Will Follow. She’s a staff writer on Nickelodeon’s How to Rock, writer of the viral video Sh*t Black Girls Say, director of shorts and web series including Save Me, Body of a Barbie, and Toy, and co-founder of the newly-minted Table Read Initiative at WGA West.  And she’ll soon make her debut as a film producer with the forthcoming independent feature, Dear White People.

**********************

S&A: You’re involved with lots of different kinds of content – television, short films, web series, and soon enough, feature films. Was that an intentional move, to create very diverse content, across different genres?

LW: It’s always been my intention to never be boxed in. I never like to do something that it feels like I’ve done before. And I always want people to be surprised that the same person did those three different shorts - if you look at Body of a Barbie, Toy, and Save Me, they have different stories, different protagonists. If there’s a common thread that goes throughout those things, that’s fine, but I want to make sure that the audience is taken aback by the way things are done, because I always want to challenge myself as a writer. I consider myself more of a writer than I do a director.

In terms of doing a lot of different projects – you know, I’m a producer on Dear White People, which is written and directed by Justin Simien. That’s the first thing I’ve ever produced, and I wrote Sh*t Black Girls Say, and that was the first time I’ve ever done a spoof. And now I’m getting more into sketch comedy. I’m also part of a collective – myself, Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier [of Black & Sexy TV], Brown Paper Dolls who do Milk & Honey, Issa Rae [of Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl], and another web series called The Brown Betties Guide, that Morenike Evans and Peppur Chambers are doing – Dennis brought us together to form this group of black folks that are doing online content, called CTRL, which you’ll be hearing more about soon.  And I also have a feature that I’m writing that Codie Elaine Brooks is producing, called Diva, based on a novel by Tia Williams

So that part wasn’t intentional - for me to become this busy, especially after getting my first staff writing gig. It’s something that was very organic. If I’m involved in something, then I feel very passionate about it. So I just try to give all of them very individual attention and make sure I’m playing my position on every one. If somebody asks me, “I’m doing this thing, would you like to be a part of it? Can you take a look?” If I do, if I’m interested, sure. But everything that I’m involved in now has come about so organically. And that’s the way I think things should happen.

Short film "Save Me"
Short film "Save Me"

S&A: There’s a big emphasis on branding in entertainment. When your projects are so diverse, how do you go about defining your brand?

LW: For me, my brand is good storytelling. I really want [my company] Hillman Grad Productions to be associated with great stories, interesting characters; things that are three-dimensional and feel honest. Things that go back to the way I felt when I watched A Different World. That’s where Hillman Grad comes from, because I feel like we all graduated from Hillman College. We felt like we were a part of that. And for me, I want the way I felt as a seven year-old-kid on my grandmother’s floor on the south side of Chicago watching that show, feeling as if I was a part of that. That’s how I want people to feel when they take in my content. No matter who or where they are. 

S&A: You’re now a writer on Nickelodeon’s How to Rock. Tell me about that experience.

LW: Honestly, it’s like any other network I think. You break story, you write scripts, you get notes. Alloy Productions is our production company; they also do Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl. There’s a few restrictions because it’s children’s TV, so we’re not going to go over the edge, but it’s just like any other show.  

S&A: On your show, which stars a young person of color, you’re one of the only young black writers?

LW: There’s only two black people in the room, both women. I’m the youngest person in my writer’s room. But I think that’s how most writer’s rooms are. It really has to be the showrunner and the network that want diversity in the room. I’m lucky enough to have a showrunner that cared about that, and I think made it his business to see to it that, that element was represented in the room.

S&A: What are the benefits, the challenges, of being one of the only young faces, or black faces, in the room?

LW: The benefits, I feel like you can speak as an authority sometimes, on what that character’s experience is like. Being the youngest person, it wasn’t too long ago that I was in this scenario, in high school. But I think the challenge is relating to writers who are of a different age, a different race, different marital status. There’s just a gap that’s inevitably there. But I do think it’s up to the minority to make it their business to try to connect with the superior writers and higher ups. It’s not their job; it’s our job to connect with them on a certain level.

S&A: Do you think that most writers are doing that?

LW: I do. I think most black writers I talk to, or that I’m friends with, get it. Because a lot of us are the “tokens” in our writer’s rooms, so we’re used to that dance. You really do have to make an effort to at least watch some of the TV shows your showrunners watch and listen to some of the music the other writers are listening to. You have to really involve yourself and make yourself a part of it, because if you don’t, you’re going to be othered even more. And I don’t mean to make yourself whitewashed, but just have an opinion on what they’re talking about, whether it be the news, politics, a TV show, a particular book, a movie - you should be knowledgeable.

S&A: Are there uncomfortable things that come up, with regard to being othered in that way?

LW: In the writer’s room, sure. Always. But it’s really about how you handle yourself. You cannot be Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton in a writer’s room. It’s not your job to go into those writer’s rooms with the weight of black America on your shoulders. If that’s what you want to do, go to Congress, but don’t go into a comedy room filled with middle-aged white guys who live in Pasadena. I think it’s really about being able to laugh at yourself.  It’s about understanding that you’re not there to change someone’s politics, someone’s views, or someone’s mind. You’re just there to be funny and do your job, and to bring something to the table. And that means to just be the best writer you can be, and make sure you’re really being invaluable to the show.  

S&A: But of course there are some people who become writers to do just that – to change people’s views and mind. If personal interaction isn’t the way, what would you say is the best way to do that?

LW: I think that my path is really about trying to create more black showrunners. That’s what I choose to do. I also hope to see more black folks in executive positions. Because that’s really where the change is going to come from – from the top down. It’s not going to go from the bottom up. There need to be more black folks in positions of power in order to hire more diverse rooms.

Table Read Initiative
Photo Credit: Erika Serrano Table Read Initiative

S&A: Oftentimes we’ll say that there aren’t enough black writers, or directors, or executives, but we don’t always agree on what “enough” is. What’s your ideal for black representation in the industry?

LW: I’m not asking for there to be all black writer’s rooms or all Asian writer’s rooms, or all white – I want them all to be diverse. When it’s diverse, you’re going to have a completely different dynamic. Everybody feels othered. Nobody feels like they’ve got the upper hand.

I’d [also] love for us to have a black network president at some point in the future. I think it says a lot about us as a society that we have a black man as the leader of the free world, but we don’t have a black leader of a major network. You know, there’s one Shonda Rhimes. One Mara Brock Akil. One Yvette Lee Bowser. They come along every couple years and I think we need more black folks that have their own shows, and not just on cable. I think that’s why, when a certain black show doesn’t do well, just like the movies – they lambast it. “This is horrible, I hate it!” But that’s just because we don’t have as many options. So I hope to sort of lead the crusade - like what Ava DuVernay is doing with film, I hope to get folks rallied around the same thing for TV. But it’s difficult. You can’t be independent in TV. You need a network, a production company, a studio. You need all these things in order to make it work.

S&A: So this year, you started a showcase of unproduced scripts by black writers at WGA West, the Table Read Initiative.

LW: Yes. There are just all these black writers, who have been the only black writers on a ton of white shows, and they have a pilot that their agents love and have been shopping around, but for some reason they haven’t gotten the push or the excitement behind it. My thing is, let’s try to get those shows produced and hopefully picked up to series, and then that person can start the change. That, to me, is where you start – by trying to help some of these black folks that have been in the game for a long time but just need an opportunity to create their own show.

S&A: How did the Initiative come about?

LW: The Table Read Initiative started one afternoon when I was just sort of kicking it with Mike Flynn, who’s an amazing writer, at Big Wangs in the Valley. I think we were both unemployed at the time. And I said to him, “What’s going on with your pilot, Lenox Ave?” And he was like, “Nothing.”

It’s gotten him staffed three times; it’s gotten him in front of Shonda Rhimes twice. And it’s a script a lot of us have read and were really impressed by. And so I was just like, “Why don’t you do a table read for it? We could get some actors to come out and read, and get some executives, and people from studios and networks to come through and hear it. And if they like it, maybe something will happen.” And he was like “That sounds interesting.” That was about eight months ago.

And then fast forward to us just, doing it. I got a small team together. A few months later I ended up getting staffed, became a member of the WGA, and decided to be an active member. I got with [WGA member] David Wyatt who led me to the Committee of Black Writers, and said we should pitch it to them and let that committee spearhead it. We brought Codie Brooks on board to help organize the event, and we got Natasha Ward and Lamese Williams to cast it, and that’s basically all it was. It didn’t cost us anything. And the night turned out to be amazing. In the audience, we had Suzanne DePasse, the head of Imagine Television, Dee Rees and her producer. The cast included Jurnee Smollett, Andre Royo, Charles Parnell, Dennis Haysbert. Dennis Haysbert is now attached to the project, and Mike Flynn is now scheduled to meet with Suzanne DePasse.

I think that sometimes, what people don’t understand is that we have a sense of power. We do know people. We have our own resources.

S&A: How simple a process was it to get executives involved?

LW: Mike and I have been [in LA] about the same period of time, and we’ve gotten a chance to know some of these executives. Some of them we knew when they were baby execs, or they were on desks, and now they’re in development. That’s just how the game works; you grow up together. So we reached out to all of our friends, and their friends. And they literally sent out this flyer that we put together to all the execs they knew. A lot of them are staffed on shows as well, so they sent it out to the writers and showrunners of those shows. So a lot of it was just sort of us doing a grassroots thing.

I think that sometimes, what people don’t understand is that we have a sense of power. We do know people. We have our own resources. And we really acted independently. CBW and WGA were hosts. We did all the ground work. They supplied a venue and a banner, and we did everything else.

S&A: How prevalent is that independent spirit among black people in Hollywood now, in your opinion?  Do you feel that everyone has a similar mindset?

LW: Are there a ton of go-getters out there? Not necessarily. Are there a ton of folks who have great ideas? Yeah. What I always try to push people to do is to execute those ideas. A big role model for me is Ava DuVernay. Working on I Will Follow, just watching her and seeing how she got things done, it inspired me to make my first short film, and also really inspired me to carry myself with the knowledge that I can get something done if I really want to do it, as cliché as that might sound.

[Actor/producer] Royale Watkins is also somebody that I watched. How he really rallied people together on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and made stuff very mobile. And Codie Brooks, who put together We Are the Industry Brunch, just based on an idea she had. It’s really about having an idea, and then having a follow up meeting with who you want to get involved and deciding how you want to make it happen. But to me, it’s all in the doing. You can talk all day long, but if you don’t do something, it’s a waste.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the conversation with Lena Waithe, where we'll talk more about film, and what she feels it will take to find change in the industry. That piece will be posted tomorrow.

This article is related to: Interview, Lena Waithe, Exclusive, Finding the New Black


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