"We’re ‘80s babies. So we were coming of age in the ‘90s when Spike Lee was king of black cinema and Tyler Perry wasn’t even a thought. John Singleton was getting nominated for an Oscar. You had the Hughes Brothers taking on Hollywood, the Bythewoods were coming up, Love Jones was in theaters, Dancing in September was on HBO. Since that’s all we know, and what we know to be good - we’re like the rebirth of that, I think."
My interview with television writer and filmmaker Lena Waithe for the Finding the New Black series continues below. And in case you missed it, find Part 1 here.
S&A: How did you get started in the business?
LW: I sort of knew very early on that I wanted to be a writer. Even in high school, I was a big movie buff, very much into TV shows, and would critique them. A big shift happened when I was selected for a program called A Semester in LA at Columbia College, where you relocate and your classroom is on a lot in Hollywood. You’re writing spec scripts and industry professionals are giving you feedback. And then after that I started interning for Tracey Edmonds at Edmonds Entertainment, which I loved, and then I became a story editor on The Real World, and after that I started interning at The Kaplan Stahler Agency. One of their clients happened to be running Girlfriends at the time, and they needed a new assistant, so they recommended me. Eventually I started working as an assistant to Regina Hicks, Mark Brown, Dee LaDuke, and Karin Gist as well. And being around Mara Brock Akil and all those writers, it really changed my life. Mara ended up leading me to an assistant job with Gina Prince-Bythewood, and that was another turn.
S&A: What TV shows are you liking right now?
LW: One of my favorites is Parks and Recreation. Great show, awesome writing, beautiful diverse cast. They also have a very diverse writer’s room, which I love. I think New Girl is fantastic. I really like Zooey [Deschanel]. The new black guy is solid. He had some very big shoes to fill with Daman Wayans Jr. leaving. I love Mad Men, I’m excited for it to come back. And I’m obsessed, obsessed, with Downton Abbey. It’s a large puzzle with a lot of complex pieces that, when they all fall together, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a lesson in great television writing.
S&A: With writing, do you ever feel the need to incorporate issues into your scripts, with regard to race or sex or sexuality? Do you feel like it’s necessary to represent a certain group?
LW: I’ve had that conversation a lot with other writers. It’s not a responsibility. Your first obligation is to tell the truth and to tell a good story. But with people of color, we walk through the world differently. So those things affect the way the world reacts to you, and maybe the way you write your characters. It really depends on you as a writer. At first, most writers stick to what they know. The black experience is our experience, so it’s not that challenging for us. That’s why sometimes you’ll see writers that start off telling black stories, but later branch out into other material. People say they "sell out." No, they evolve as writers.
But also in television, we have to prove that we can write white characters. They want to know you can capture the voice of a 25-year-old white woman living in New York City. Unless you’re a feature writer and can go off and tell a black story. I see a lot of [feature filmmakers] doing that. I also think it’s a responsibility once you reach a certain level in the business, to help tell those stories. There are some people who have reached that level, and I wish they’d do more. It only costs about one or two million to make a really solid independent black film.
S&A: Is there ever an intent to keep characters racially ambiguous in scripts, in order to leave the door open for possible actors of color?
LW: A lot of us call that the Shonda Rhimes approach. The characters don’t have a specific race. They’re just really complex, interesting characters, so it becomes “may the best actor win.” In my scripts, I don’t specify [race]. But you can usually tell by the character’s name or something said in the script. The pilot I’m working on now doesn’t have a black person in it. One of the characters has a line, “You can kiss my big black ass,” and another character calls her out on it. So I’m kind of poking fun at it.
But I do think it’s important for black writers to show that we too can make it into the mainstream. Growing up, I didn’t just watch The Cosby Show, I watched Growing Pains and Family Ties too. We can tell those stories too.
S&A: What do you think of the films that are out now?
LW: I see everything. I just saw 21 Jump Street. I thought it was funny, I smiled throughout. I loved Pariah. I was a big fan of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I actually really liked The Help. I know that may not be a popular thing, but I thought it was a solid film. It wasn’t Roots. It wasn’t The Color Purple. But you couldn’t pick it apart in terms of storytelling, and I thought the characters were well written.
S&A: Since you brought up The Help, let’s stay there a minute. It comes up a lot - the balance to strike between seeing what you feel is a good film, and feeling like you’re supporting images that may be problematic. Where’s that balance for you?
LW: I mean, it’s a tough thing. Look at the poster for Tower Heist; that to me was bothersome. But if you look at what critics had to say, I don’t think that was a great movie. I think The Help was a good film that celebrated the women that played that role and really were unsung heroes. So I’m not saying it was a perfect film, but I don’t think it was something that should have been boycotted. There’s a lot of films black audiences can rally against. I don’t think that was necessarily the one to do it to.
So I think, yeah, there’s a lot of maids, and black folks playing bad guys, and stuff like that. But I think there are some independent black films that don’t have those stereotypes that just sort of get looked over. I know it’s an age-old argument, but I think that it really is up to black audiences to seek out films that are coming from a different perspective, like Medicine for Melancholy, It’s a Good Day to be Black & Sexy, Middle of Nowhere, Pariah. There’s a ton. And I think you don’t have to be a film buff to seek out those films. Your money is your voice. So where we put our money, our mouth is.
S&A: But some independent films don’t play in every city. So for folks that are outside of New York or LA, how do you think they can expand their horizons with regard to black cinema?
LW: I think it’s unfortunate that those films don’t make it to every theater. Madea’s Family Reunion is gonna play in every movie theater. So is Big Momma’s House. I think what black folks have to do, and I know Ava [DuVernay] is leading the charge on this, is to demand certain films be played at their local AMCs. And that to me is the next step, for audiences to demand that they put these films on more screens. That’s a place where black audiences can really step up. Because I see them on the blogospheres, and Twitter and Facebook - they get upset. But I think that if folks get mobile, there’s really something that can be done to get these films on more screens. Because there’s definitely an audience for it.
And for folks who feel that’s a long journey – Netflix. Everybody has Netflix. Most of these films you can find on your TV at the crib. So I think folks should at least see them. And for some of these films, I think that’s the better way to see them, because they’re so small and intimate. Not everything necessarily has to be on the big screen.
S&A: Would you say, though, that Hollywood has created a culture where you’re expected to go and see a major movie release at a theater – and not just any arthouse theater, your local cinemaplex – and if it’s not playing there, that it almost loses credibility in the audience’s eyes?
LW: Here’s the deal - there’s a big difference between Medicine for Melancholy and Trois 3.
S&A: But in terms of communicating that difference to a broad audience?
LW: But also, I used to work at Blockbuster. Suckas used to come in and dig those films. “Two Can Play That Game 8? Yes!!” And they used to be into it, you know. So the question becomes, do black people like bad films? Have we become accustomed to McDonald’s and don’t know what steak tastes like anymore? To me, we have to have stricter criteria for what we deem a “good film.”
But I think what we also need to be doing is reading reviews. You can go online and read a movie review in the Times, or go to Netflix and really see what the people are saying about a film. And folks will be honest. I read Netflix reviews. I see how many stars something’s gotten. And I can tell you that Two Can Play That Game 8 is not gonna get five stars. So it’s a matter of taste. And I think that we really need to work on ours, because I’ve had that conversation with some of my black counterparts in the business, and they’re like, “Yo, Big Momma’s House 3 did extremely well at the box office.”
S&A: With regard to studio cinema or independent cinema, where do you see the most opportunities happening for you and your peers? Do you intend to keep a foot in both worlds?
LW: I would like to live in both worlds. Honestly, there’s really not a place for us, as black writers or directors in the studio system. Unless you have Denzel, Will, or Halle in your back pocket. There’s just no room for us there. I think that independent cinema is the new way. If you’re gonna make a film, you better go shoot it, and the budget will consist of your blood, sweat and tears. Hopefully you’ll have an independent investor, and a good product, and then hopefully you get into a film festival, and you get acquired, and it gets you in some theaters. If you get really lucky, maybe Oprah or Tyler Perry will see it, want to be your godparent, and really get it out to some more theaters. And then if it’s really good, you might get some award recognition. And then if you have a good year and you play your cards right, then you might become a director that will be sought after by some of these white studio heads. But I think that’s the only way you can break into the industry, by doing amazing work.
Or you can do not-so-good work and just get people that will invest in it. And you can kind of hustle your way into a festival. But then you probably won’t get acquired. You may go to VOD. But if that’s what your goal is, to make your money back, then you’ll be all good.
S&A: What are some of the trends you’re seeing within this new generation of black content creators?
LW: Well, some of the people that I’m kicking it with, we were all raised on Spike Lee, Cosby, Singleton. We were raised on that. We were ‘80s babies. So we were coming of age in the ‘90s when Spike Lee was king of black cinema and Tyler Perry wasn’t even a thought. John Singleton was getting nominated for an Oscar. You had the Hughes Brothers taking on Hollywood, the Bythewoods were coming up. Love Jones was in theaters, Dancing in September was on HBO. Since that’s all we know, and what we know to be good - we’re the rebirth of that, I think. Because me and my people, we come from middle class black families, urban cities. These are the stories we’re telling.
A lot of us were raised on music videos, MTV and BET, so we’re into those kinds of shots. To me, Justin [Simien] is sort of like, the spirit of Spike Lee, it resonates within him. I see that in his work and what he’s doing. I sort of have this A Different World spirit, and Codie [Brooks], she talks about The Best Man all the time. We’re very much about throwbacks and vintage and the way things were. I mean, it’s like we’re living in the past. Because that was our heyday and things were so black and beautiful in the ‘90s. And people keep saying they want that time back. So that to me is the trend, of us trying to find that time again. It won’t be the exact same thing. You can’t do that. But it’ll be our version of it.
S&A: So what is the new contribution that you feel this generation will bring to that old style?
LW: I think the biggest thing is technology. Today, you’ll have a following for a film before it even hits theaters. Dear White People has a Twitter handle. People think it’s funny. People are wondering who’s writing it. Sh*t Black Girls Say has about 8 million views; that’s more people than watch some TV shows. So it’s about getting eyes, getting interest, and getting people involved. I think those are the things that our generation is doing that couldn’t be done in the past. We can reach out and touch our audience in ways that they couldn’t.
S&A: It’s often said within our community that “If black folks would just get it together,” that we’d make more gains in film and TV. Do you feel that’s entirely true – that if every black content creator and every black audience member banded together to fund, create, and support our work, that our problems would be solved? Or do you feel that white (or non-black) involvement is necessary?
LW: It definitely takes some white involvement. Because it’s all about getting the people with greenlighting ability to see that there needs to be a diverse string of films and TV shows. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t just black folks. It was everybody. At the Table Read Initiative, we don’t only want black folks in the audience, we want folks in the audience who have some clout and can help us to get some of these shows on the air.
But I’m telling you, executives are getting younger and younger every year. So I think that at some point, some of these guys are going to age out of their positions and leave, and you’re going to get a new breed of executives that want to see more diverse casts. You look at something like Happy Endings or New Girl, and some people may say that those shows have tokens, but it’s important. It’s helpful.
S&A: Would you say that’s happening now, that younger executives are turning the tide at studios for diversity?
LW: Totally, I think so. Because I’ve gotten to know some of these executives. And even though they may be white, they get it. Their friends aren’t all white, living in LA. They have Latino friends, black friends, Asian, gay, straight. So it’s changing. But folks can’t expect for change to come fast. They say “dreams come slowly or not at all.” Same thing with change. We just have to keep doing the right things. My crew is a sea of amazing writers and directors - a lot of black, young, creative people that are just doing our part. Every day, we’re going to work and trying to make the best scripts possible. We’re just waiting our turn.
Thanks very much to Lena for her time and sharing her thoughts for this piece.
You can follow Lena Waithe and her projects on Tumblr at Hillman Grad Productions
Or on Twitter at @HillmanGrad