Lena Waithe is well aware that some people are riled up about her portrayals of Black people in 2019’s groundbreaking film Queen & Slim. She also knows that the beauty in being Black stems from our multitudes, such as the folks who can be snooty and poor or hood and rich. In her latest movie, amid an incredibly sobering yet beautiful backdrop, the screenwriter and producer was determined to showcase the totality of our community. And, despite criticism, she won’t apologize for it.
She doesn’t have to.
“I know that there’s always been conversations about how Black art should show up,” says Waithe. “Should it heal us, should it stir us up, should it show us ourselves? And everyone doesn’t agree on what the answer is, but as Black artists we have to continue to fight for freedom and to tell stories the way that we see fit.”
She doubles down on this sentiment, even if that means creating a film that showcases Black love set amid an infuriatingly impossible situation as it unfolds on screen.
“That’s the space we’re in now,” she says. “And I’m always happy to take the licks and go through a brick wall and shake things up. I’m willing to do it.”
From Queen & Slim to making the Showtime series The Chi, Waithe has a knack for showcasing Black people as they are. No sugarcoating. That means you get all skin tones, accents and classes represented, and that’s in part why her audience is so loyal. Waithe is real.
“Ultimately, what I want to document are different pockets of Black life,” she says, discussing how her work intersects with the Black American struggle. “It might not always look like a struggle; sometimes it’s joy. We’re such a complex group of people… I just want to document us and I don’t want any one of us to be invisible. Even those who talk a certain way or make a living in a way that some of us might not deem appropriate — all Black lives matter. We all have value; no matter where we come from.”
Waithe says she’s also trying to document what is happening in the country right now, in a way that doesn’t let people off the hook, particularly the police. The last thing she wants to do is exploit Black trauma, she notes.
Her work has gotten notice in Hollywood. Waithe made history in 2017 when she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing for the Netflix series Master of None. The win has helped her to help others. Waithe is lifting as she’s climbing.
“That Emmy did change the course of my life,” she says. “My grind wasn’t going to stop whether I won or lost, but what it did was raise my profile, and it put me in a certain space where I could introduce more writers to executives that we wouldn’t ordinarily know. That’s what the Emmy represented. It was a doorstop to hold the door open for all the others who didn’t get an opportunity.”
Waithe is indeed a trailblazer and knows she has opportunities because of those who have dedicated their lives to the lifelong fight for justice.
For example, the Emmy winner admires Alabama attorney Bryan A. Stevenson and the women who created Black Lives Matter. And as for the pioneers of the movement, Waithe points to Bayard Rustin, a gay organizer who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin also pushed for gay rights, socialism and nonviolence.
“He was openly gay. He was a renaissance man. He was a champion for justice, and he is just really a big hero in the queer Black community because he wasn’t afraid to be who he was,” explains Waithe.
And neither is she.
— Adrienne Samuels Gibbs