MASTER OF ONE

Screenwriter-producer-actress Lena Waithe is the Takeover Queen—and Even Black Twitter Can’t Stop Her

Story By S. Tia Brown
Photography By Shaniqwa Jarvis

Black women stay saving the day.

After a four-year hiatus, Netflix’s hit series Master of None (MON) is back. The wildly popular show, which launched in 2015 and centered around the hilariously relatable adventures of stand-up comic Dev (Aziz Ansari), has a big change. The series’ storyline now focuses on the main character’s bestie, Denise (Lena Waithe), a Black queer woman, and her relationship. People are predicting greatness.

A few years ago no one would ever imagine there’d be buzz over a show featuring two Black women, but Waithe, 37, has aligned her work with showing Black people, queer folks, dreamers and doers as we know them. Nuanced. Amazing. Troubled. Beautiful. Ridiculous. Ambitious. Loved. There have been a lot of green lights. And whether fans may or may not believe the producer/writer always gets it right, she gets it. Waithe’s resume—Dear White People, Boomerang, Twenties, The Chi, Bad Hair, Queen & Slim, The 40-Year-Old Version and Them: Covenant—gives her enviable screen cred.

But being a showstopper also has its setbacks. Right now, Waithe is a leader in the Black millennial content creator game, the voice of a generation, and she isn’t satisfied. Not because of the relentless dissection of her work by Black Twitter but because she knows there’s a lot of dope talent. The Chicagoan’s made it her goal to bring the wood and nails to build more tables for the community. “The Black audience and Black artists have always had a complex relationship, and just like any other relationship, we’re not going to always agree,” she tells EBONY. “I think people think there can only be a handful or a few… I want [to create space for] people to do stories that I can’t imagine telling.”

Through Hillman Grad Productions (the name is a nod to A Different World), Waithe shares resources and open doors for other creators. There are mentorship programs, internships and real, life-changing, career-defining jobs. The entrepreneur is building her tribe—no—our tribe in the Hollywood space.

I want [space for] people to do stories that I can’t imagine telling.

Clearly, Waithe is into community. That’s likely why she insisted her EBONY interview be conducted by her longtime mentor, famed director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard). It’s another way to make space, share and remind. Their relationship has invoices. And Waithe, who served as Bythewood’s assistant on The Secret Life of Bees, has stayed close, spending much of the last decade sharing occasional holidays and frequent texts with her advisor and friend. The pair has banter, filled with pet names and inside jokes, that instantly reads equal parts deference and appreciation (Waithe), pride and awe (Bythewood)— and a little, “I’m grown now” (Waithe). But they’re not alone in their space. Looking, and weighing, on both shoulders is the question, the value and the respect of “the work”. Bythewood—who the Emmy-winner dubs as from “the school of the Talented Tenth”—glides through a mix of celebratory and challenging questions with the millennial phenom who used to answer phones. There is love. There is honesty. There is pushback. EBONY shares an intimate conversation between two of Hollywood’s most legendary content creators.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Why was it important for you to have this conversation with me?

Lena Waithe: We have such a history. It feels like you’re a person who’s known me for a significant part of my life. I think you’re the person who saw me, obviously I started with Mara [Brock Akil] first, but you saw me when I was at the beginning and we’ve maintained a friendship and sisterhood throughout.

GPB: One of the beautiful things about you is that you’re really committed to supporting young creatives—and you do it quietly. Where does that come from?

LW: I was taught that character is what you do when no one is looking. I don’t do it for fanfare or to be thanked. I think for me it’s important because it’s actually the only way you can improve the business. It’s not from the top down; actually, I think it’s about just making it accessible and opening doors. I like a fresh face and a new voice. I think people think there can only be a handful or a few, and my mission is to make it that there are so many of us that it will also help how people view the work. When there’s only a few things Black or queer or that has a woman it makes it so that the audience expects so much. I want [to make space for] people to do stories that I can’t imagine telling.

GPB: It’s the burden of Black artists because there are so few. We have to be everything for our community. We don’t have the luxury to tell any story. How do we navigate that?

LW: The Black audience and Black artists have always had a complex relationship, and just like any other relationship, we’re not going to always agree. And that’s okay. The truth is that you’re giving people different pieces of yourself and people will have things that they like more. But it isn’t fair to keep asking people to do what they like the most—you don’t grow as an artist. Therefore, I don’t get mad or upset, it makes me want to lean into them more and ask the question, why is it ok for Set it Off and not Queen & Slim? A lot of bodies dropped in Set it Off, but we don’t call that “trauma porn” but I may get that title.

IF FOLKS WANT TO DRAG ME AND GET MAD, I’M NOT UPSET ABOUT THAT, I HONOR IT.

GPB: We’ve been traumatized by Hollywood because it’s not until recently that we’ve been able to control our own images. We’re trying to fix so much that has been broken by being truthful and authentic. In Queen & Slim the two leads get shot up. Why did you leave an audience with that?

LW: It was really about how the world was affecting me at the time. Constantly seeing names as hashtags, as depressing and heartbreaking as it is, there is still something very hopeful. That’s why it was important to me to let Queen & Slim be a time capsule, be a record of a time in our country when police officers killed Black people for sport, and Black people have no choice but to keep their memory alive. For me as an artist with that film, I didn’t lie at the end. I told the truth. And the truth can be painful.

GPB: That’s the question. How much reality do we show given the burden that Black folks live with every day? Our shoulders are always up. Can trauma break through that and soothe?

LW: When artists are operating in a space of ‘ What does my audience want?’ we absolutely miss out on some work. I think this is a time [where] people are starting to exist inside the box and wanting people to hit ‘like’, and be kind. If folks want to drag me and get mad, I’m not upset about that, I honor it. And my hope is that the next thing I drop, hopefully you show up and if you dig it, cool. I want folks to understand that we are providing a menu of different things, not just one. It’s easy to attach a narrative, especially when you’re a Black woman, a queer woman, that it’s negative or “trauma porn”. But the truth is, when someone steps back and looks at the body of work, whether it’s 40 Year Old Version, Twenties, Boomerang, Them: Covenant, Queen & Slim, to me it’s important to make sure every artist gets to be free.

GPB: Why do you write?

LW: Because I have to. I have these voices in my head, characters, and stories. Also it’s how I process my joy, pain, and history. It’s my outlet.

GPB: EBONY is a space of legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?

LW: I hope to leave a positive impact on the industry and not just with my work but with the people that I bring with me. I do know that’s going to be the true legacy, how many people we help.

GPB: In Master of None, once again you’re doing something that’s never been done before. It goes places that are really going to change people. How did it come about?

LW: We wrote this a couple of years ago. The truth is people may want to think, ‘is she using her own life?’ It isn’t [my own life]. There are a lot of things that I haven’t experienced that Denise [Waithe’s character] experiences. I had to have a lot of conversations with people who shared their stories about IVF and [other experiences]. You don’t have to be a queer Black woman to appreciate this season but if you are a queer Black woman you’re going to feel very seen.

GPB: What are your thoughts on the evolution of Black female characters?

LW: I’m actually excited about where we are. If I think to this moment, we have Insecure, I May Destroy You and Twenties. That to me is so exciting. The fact that [Master of None] is still a first, means there’s still a lot to do by not just having cisgender Black people or Christian Black people.

GPB: Black. Gay. Woman. When you write, does any come first?

LW: I’m not necessarily thinking, ‘as a gay Black woman, how do I write this scene?’ I guess because I am part of the queer community, I make sure that we are of the world. We exist.

GPB: I admire how you have a healthy attitude towards criticism. You take it in to learn from it. Do you have that same ability when it comes to the challenges in your personal life?

LW: That’s never easy and that’s because I didn’t grow up witnessing romantic relationships. I had a single mother who got divorced from my father when I was really young. Then I lived with my grandmother, whose husband had passed away. So, the relationships I really witnessed were mother-daughter, my mother and her sister and I have an older sister. I was really in a house of women who shared similar traumas. I learned on Find Your Roots that my grandmother’s father was shot and killed. My mom’s father passed away in a truck accident and then my father passed away suddenly at 48.

I was in a house with women who had wounds that weren’t visible, and we all had different ways of trying to either ignore them or heal them, and for me I tried to confront them in the work. And just because I’m gay or a woman or Black does not make me holier than anyone else—and I think that society thinks I should. Or, I should be more noble or sanctified because I’m other’d in more ways than most people but in essence it makes it so that I’m juggling a bunch of things emotionally.

I’m not going to always get it right—let me be human.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A QUEER BLACK WOMAN TO APPRECIATE THIS SEASON, BUT IF YOU ARE, YOU’LL FEEL VERY SEEN.

GPB: What do you dream about achieving now?

LW: I have a very complicated relationship with the word ‘success’ because we’ve been tricked into believing that success means abundance. Stuff doesn’t make you happy. I always say you have to leave space in your dreams for God to make revisions. I believe that everything is purposeful and I try to embrace the purpose at the time. I just want to make something I’m proud of. It’s a marathon. There’s no finish line. And, for those who hate me the most on Twitter and don’t like the stories that I’m telling, I’d like to welcome you to the table.

GPB: Speaking of what’s next, tell us about Hillman Grad Records.

LW: Music artists help us do our job in the writing stage and onscreen—a song can change a whole scene. I wanted to introduce new talent and Def Jam agreed to allow us to make contracts that were fair to Black artists, which is always a battle because these deals are offensive. Musicians really do make the world go round and have a huge impact on society. [The label] is sort of a one-stop shop for artists who have to fight to get on soundtracks or audition rooms. With us, all of the doors are open to you.

THE FACT THAT [MON] IS A FIRST, MEANS THERE’S STILL A LOT TO DO BY JUST NOT HAVING CISGENDER BLACK PEOPLE OR CHRISTIAN BLACK PEOPLE.

CREDITS

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO

CREATIVE DIRECTOR KWASI FORDJOUR

ART DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN

MOTION GRAPHICS RODRIGO MALTCHIQUE

STYLIST ASTRID GALLEGOS

STYLING ASSISTANTS ANNIE HANLEY, NICOLE APREA

TAILOR MARC LITTLEJOHN

HAIR MILES TOWNES

MAKEUP REBEKAH ALLADIN

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOLABI QUADRI AT THE QUADRI GROUP

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT ZEE HOWELL

SET DESIGNER CARLOS ANTHONY LOPEZ AT WINSTON STUDIOS

SET DESIGN ASSISTANT JACQUELYN SMITH

VIDEO DONOVAN JOHNSON

PHOTO ASSISTANTS JIMMY KIM, JORDAN ZUPPA

COVID COMPLIANCE OFFICER ADEWOLE LIPEDE

CLOTHING CREDITS LOOK 1: MAISON MARGIELA COAT AND T-SHIRT, SHEILA RASHID PANTS, KAPITAL NECK TIE, NIKE SNEAKERS, LENA’S OWN JEWELRY; LOOK 2: BODE COAT, FEAR OF GOD HOODIE, CELINE PANTS, G.H. BASS SHOES, FREYA HAT, LENA’S OWN JEWELRY; LOOK 3: MAISON MARGIELA JACKET AND T-SHIRT, LENA’S OWN JEWELRY; LOOK 4: MIA VESPER SUIT, BOTTEGA VENETA SUNGLASSES, LENA’S OWN JEWELRY

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