Lena Waithe is a force to be reckoned with as a screenwriter, producer, and actress. She first came into most peoples' awareness playing the character of ‘Denise’ in the Netflix comedy-drama series Master of None. On that series she also became the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017 for the episode "Thanksgiving," which was based loosely on her own personal experience of coming out to her mother.
Waithe is also the creator of the Showtime drama series The Chi, the short-lived Hello Cupid, and the upcoming comedy series Twenties. Lena was a former staff writer on Bones, and developed the television series adaptation of the 1992 Eddie Murphy film Boomerang. As an actor Lena appeared in the 2018 Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One, the television series Westworld, and Dear White People (she was a producer on the original film). The road trip/crime film Queen & Slim is her very first feature screenplay.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mike Sargent: When did you first know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Lena Waithe: Wow, that's a great question. I think I've always sort of been a storyteller, even as a kid. Things would happen during my day, and I would retell it when I got home to my grandmother and to my mother and my sister and all of the women that would huddle at my grandmother's house. I think I've always been telling people's stories. My audience just kind of got a little bigger.
Mike: And, in your estimation, what makes a good story and a story worth telling?
Lena: Oh man, something that I can't get out of my head. I think for me, that's my litmus test. If I can't stop thinking about a thing, I'm like, "Oh, I've got to tell this. I have to say something." If I end up ruminating constantly on something, that to me is a sign that there's something there. If I can't stop thinking about it, maybe other people are the same. Maybe somebody else will feel that way as well.
Mike: Would that go for stories that you hear, besides stories you tell?
Lena: Yeah, to me the best stories are the ones that are timeless, that are universal. Because even if a story has people in it that don't look like me, like take Thelma and Louise for example, which has been such a huge compliment when people speak about our film and that film in the same sentence because those are two very white women living a very different experience than me, but there is something that obviously struck a nerve with that movie, what that was saying, and what those women were maybe trying to do; trying to find a sense of freedom and to find a sense of being alive.
Lena: Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies, which can be very timeless because it's all about searching for something outside of yourself; which is the greatest sin someone could commit. I like stories to just feel that we can tell them again and again and again and again.
Mike: I agree with everything you said, and I'm glad you brought up Thelma and Louise because I want to bring that up later. All right, my last contextual question is; since human beings have been telling stories in every culture since recorded time whether they’re true stories, Bible stories, cave drawings, etc. Why do you think human beings tell stories? What do you think the purpose is? Every human culture has it. Why?
Lena: So people know we were here. It's a way of reminding those that come after how we lived, what we did, what we got right, what we got wrong. It's really a documentation of lives lived, and also trying to understand humanity. I think that's really what stories are always trying to do; always trying to better understand, who we are.
Mike: I agree with that 1000%. Now let’s get into Queen and Slim. I know that this was something that James Frey mentioned to you—that he had an idea, but he knew he couldn't write it, and you agreed to. Was this one of those stories that stayed with you, that you ruminated on till you knew this was something you had to do?
Lena: It did. It got my wheels spinning, in that good way that you kind of can't explain—I was like, what? Something about the idea of black people killing a cop in self-defense was just fascinating to me. Then I said, maybe because it's a story I hadn't heard, hadn't seen, didn't exist in the ether, and I was just like, why hasn't that been done before? Why hasn't anyone told that story? And I was grateful that he said it to me. I wanted to explore what that would look like. And it really is my exploration of that story. Doesn't mean it's right. Doesn't mean it's wrong. It's mine, and it’s told through my lens, and it can be agreed with or disagreed with. And that to me is what's so great about telling stories. A subject in different people's hands can come out differently.
Lena: It's about being in divine order or, the universe working in or against your favor. But yeah, to me, I think I was supposed to take this responsibility and okay, this is how I want to tell this story.
Mike: One of the things I love about this film, and you specifically telling this story, is you've taken things that we have seen before—the outlaws, the road trip—and given it a perspective and a point of view we've never had before, and used what could be seen as an old genre to tell new stories; even though it's a familiar genre. How important do you think that is and how valuable do you think this is in this time of what has been called a Black Renaissance in film?
Lena: Oh, I think it's imperative, and look I'm not naive, I know that it's not the most polite movie. I know that it's not the easiest movie. I know that it ruffles feathers, but I think that that's what art is supposed to do. I don't believe in Art as being passive or safe, or made to make you feel good necessarily. I don't know why that's a responsibility that black artists have to take on. I understand it, though. I want to be clear about that. I fully understand it, but I don't necessarily agree with it.
Mike: I agree 100%. You mentioned before classics, movies that stay with you, stories that stay with you that are timeless. In all of those timeless stories what people resonate with is the truth. That truth of the human experience.
Mike: So whether you like that truth or not, that's what I think people are responding to in your film.
Lena: Wow. I receive that. I receive that. Because obviously it's triggered something, because here's the thing. It's interesting because at first I was sort of like, Whoa, what's going on? But then the more I settled into it and did some research about how old pieces of writing by black artists or art has been perceived. And the funny thing is, cause it was every little bit of research I did, there was always resistance within the black community, from the black community. So, it kind of comes with the territory.
Mike: Let me ask you a little bit about your process, and how has writing for TV maybe influenced, helped or supported how you were able to approach a script; because a screenplay is a very different thing than a teleplay. Can you talk about?
Lena: Oh yeah, yeah, for sure. And it was challenging for me, and also because I was sort of trying to break some rules, too. A big thing for me, as we think about Thelma and Louise, I didn't want a Harvey Keitel in my movie. I didn't want that cop that you cut away to that you sympathize with, who has to sympathize with the people he has to bring to justice and reminding us of a clock. I didn't want that. I wanted to sit with these characters. Also, the thing with the names.I didn't want to reveal their name because of a multiple reasons, because I wanted people to see themselves in the character. And also, too, I feel like, oftentimes we don't know black names until a cop kills us. That was really the emphasis of it. It's like, why do we know Mike Brown's name? Why do we know Sandra Bland's name? Why do we know Tatiana's name? Why do we know Eric Garners' name? You know what I'm saying? It is black life for some reason as the more illuminated than death. And, so I wanted to do certain things in the screenplay that aren't the usual, that you don't tend to do, or even maybe with the whole not having a happy ending.
Mike: It's interesting because you say you broke rules, but while you don't have the Harvey Keitel character, you do have without giving away a similar ending to Thelma and Louise. But that that ending was praised while yours is…., but my take on that is that I think people fell in love with your characters and they were angry.
Mike: That's a testament to the art.
Lena: That's basically what people have been saying and that’s even my thinking, but also too, yes, they fell for the characters, but they also saw themselves in the characters. They related to the character so much that when they go, it's like a piece of them goes. And there's often this sort of terminology that I've heard about like, "Oh, we wanted a win. We wanted a win, for them, for ourselves." So, I think that's more about projecting again.
Mike: It is.
Lena: Black people wanting a win. I think Barack Obama, that was like us ‘getting a win.’ Every time Denzel and Halle won those Oscars, ‘we won.’ Moonlight wins best picture. ‘Oh, we won best picture.’
Lena: And so I think that kind of becomes a part of our narrative. For me, it wasn't about giving us a win. And maybe some people might feel like I didn't give us a win. It was more about, no, I wanted to document this part of our time in our history and our society.
Mike: This truth.
Lena: This is that sometimes out in the world, we don't win. You know, Sandra Bland didn't get a win. You know, Trayvon Martin didn't win, but somebody could also argue that we as a community refuse to let them die in vain. Trayvon Martin's name will not be forgotten. His life will always be celebrated by us. Refuse to let George Zimmerman take him away. We illuminated him. That selfie he took that day, that fateful day, he took that selfie of himself in a hoodie looking so innocent and young and full of life. I don't think he thought that that picture would be turned into a picket sign. Of a way to remind people that all lives matter. And that was where that all came from for me, for the end of the movie. Ala’ that picture that they took was then illuminated on the mural—that's what the movie was supposed to be. It was supposed to be honoring the soldiers that we've lost in a war that they did not start.
Mike: Well, now let me get a little bit more into your process now because there's so many themes.
Lena: And that is a part of the process. Funny enough. Those are the things I'm thinking about.
Lena: I'm not just sitting here like, okay, Act I, Act II. Even though I do that, I beat the mood. I have a Save-the-Cat beat that I follow—that's a big part of my process. I always start with Blake Snyder, Save the Cat. What is my opening image? What is my theme stating? What is my break in the Act II? What is my debate?
Like when the two main characters are talking, that is a debate. He's like, ‘Yo, what about you? Your family, you're going to leave them behind? Yeah, let's go. You're a black man and killed the cop, took his gun. But, I was going to go home to my family. If you turn yourself you'll never see him again.’ That's the debate. And he's like, ‘Well what do we do? I got an uncle, he lives in New Orleans. Let's go.’ Break in Act II. So even while I'm thinking about real life shit and what's going on in the black community, I'm also thinking as a screen player. I'm like, okay. It was fun and games. The fun and games wasn't stopping for the ride-the-horse scene, and the jumping-out-the-window scene. This is primal to the premise. It's a road movie, so you're going to see scenery. You're going to be in a car. There are certain rules that I did follow where I'm like, okay, here we go, this has to happen. Boom, boom. You know what I mean?
Lena: And then at the same time I'm like, so how do I drip it in blackness? There's also a thing, too, that I'll speak about. There's a thing that's been popping up about stereotype. 'Is she perpetuating stereotype?’ Here's the thing—there are certain people in the black community that people want to be invisible, like the Uncle Earl character, or like the Goddess character. Well guess what? I had an Uncle Earl. He's now in heaven. He, too, went to war and came back different. He, too, was stuck in a time. He, too, wasn't the most chivalrous person in the world. He, too, didn't get along with my mother. Why can't I illuminate him in my work? Why is he a stereotype, you know what I'm saying?
Mike: Yes, I do.
Lena: He's a human being. But, anyway….
Mike: You mentioned some things about, beats and Act I, Act II. Sometimes telling a story, it's knowing what's the best genre to tell your story in. Why do you feel like the road movie? I mean, yes, they're outlaws on the run, but you could have done any kind of thing with this. You could have combined other genres with this, you could have brought in, like you said, different types of characters or made them stay in one place longer. What, do you feel that the road-movie genre gave you as a writer that you could do and make statements and say things that maybe a different genre wouldn't?
Lena: Well, I think a big thing was—and I think you probably can feel this as you watched the movie—is I wanted time to breathe. I wanted it to be claustrophobic. I wanted to feel like the journey. I wanted to feel like an odyssey. People say you see the reverse underground railroad narrative. I think with this genre gave an ability to do, was to really get to know these characters. And what better way I mean, even in real life, you want to get to know somebody—sit in the car for five hours.
Mike: That is true.
Lena: Try to get somewhere, and it was really the perfect foil to have these two people get to know each other, and for us to get to know them that way. And I also did try to do something different in that I don't give you everything about them upfront. It is like an onion; you learn about them as they learned about each other. And that was on purpose. I was like, no, you're going to plop in, you're going to drop it on them, and you're going to get to know them over the course of time, and we're going to watch them grow, and change, and evolve, and by the end of it, they'll be different people.
Mike: I believe that as you define your art, your art defines you. So what is the journey to getting Queen & Slim made and now the reaction and the accolades and the success and everything. What have you learned about yourself in this process? Or re-learned.
Lena: Oh wow. That's a phenomenal question. I think, I've learned that I'm human, even though I knew that already. I said this before, but now I've learned it, that exposing art is a vulnerable thing. To bare your soul in your work and then show it to people. You're very exposed. You're naked almost when you, when you present your art to the world and it is there to be judged. It is to be ridiculed. It is there to be misunderstood or misinterpreted or picked apart, and that is also a part of the creative process and it's not easy, but it's important, and it's necessary; because I think it can either make you a better artist to be even more bold, take even more risks, or it can make you a not-so-great artist where you only give the audience what they want and you buckle under pressure and you start to change who you are as a person because of it. And I want to be the former.
Mike: I once interviewed this big, abstract painter who did these gigantic paintings and with stuff thrown in them and what not. And I remember going to his gallery looking around and thinking, wow. And I asked him, "How do you know when you're done?" And he said that "a painting is never finished until somebody else sees it." So I want to know your thoughts on the relationship between the artist and the person who views the art. I interviewed Francis Ford Coppola, and I asked him what does he think the relationship between a filmmaker and a film critic is? And he said he felt that they should be helping each other get better at what they do.
Lena: Wow. I agree with that wholeheartedly. Wholeheartedly. Yeah. Wow. I think I might push this way because I think more about my relationship with the audience more so than the critic, because that's really who I do it for. I do it for myself. I want to tell stories that I can't get out of my spirit, and I have to get it out. So that's a selfish thing. But then once it's done, and I put it out, I want the audience to receive it however they choose. And it's interesting because during the promotional tour that we were on, everyone would ask me, what I want the audience to take away from the film. "What do you want them to get out of it?" And I, every single time I said this, and I'm so glad I did because I still believe it to be true, is that ‘I can't tell someone else what to take away from my movie. I can't, they will take away from it what they bring to it.’
Lena: And so for me, it's like I would never want everyone to go, "Oh, it was great. It was perfect." I would feel as though I'm not being treated equally. So true equality, is for folks to say, "Oh, I thought this could have been better or thought it was slower, or I thought it was stronger." That to me is actual equality. It's like especially because I'm black, I'm queer, I'm a female, don't give me a pass. I don't want it. I want to be treated like every other screenwriter, producer, artist and every screenwriter, producer, artists has taken their licks. It makes us better. So, give it to me. I'm not going to ignore it. I'll receive it, but I also know that as an artist, I also have to make sure that I'm listening to myself as well, because that's what makes me an artist. Cause like I have to be bold, I have to do things that might rub folks the wrong way, sometimes. But if it's a decision that I can stand by, then it's a fair one. It's okay to disagree about art. It's okay to do that. There are certain things that I like that some people don't. There are certain things that people like that I don't really get, that doesn't take away from what that movie or that piece of art is. It's still viable, and I think that, that's the true equality is, is us being able to look at our work critically in public and not just say, "Oh that black thing was good" and then whisper to our neighbors behind the scenes, and go "well it was okay."
Lena: Don't do that to me. I'm strong. I can take it. And the cool thing is I'm always going to be here. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not running scared, ever. I wasn't built to break. So, I'm here and I'm going to keep making things and you know, maybe the next thing may hit people differently, because that's the other thing. It's like I want the work to be varied, like Twenties, it could not be more different from Queen & Slim. Boomerang, season two, is going to be so different than all those things. The Chi next season, this new season, is going to be such a departure from what we've been doing. So I always welcome people to look at the body of work, if you will, and see that I'm trying to explore every crevice of us. And it's not always perfect. It's not always happy, sometimes it is. It's not always politically correct. I just want to be more of a journalist than anything else. As an artist, you know what I mean?
Mike: I'm with you 1000%.
Lena: History is important, and if we don't look at history then we repeat it.
Mike: Here is the last thing I wanted to ask you—comedy has become more relevant than ever right now in the way things are.
Mike: Do you think it's no mistake that all of a sudden all these directors, writers who are known for comedy are making all these serious films that have a lot to say about the human condition. Cause that's what comedians have always done?
Lena: Oh yeah. I think, comedians are the ones that tell us who we really are. Even we don't want to accept it. And so therefore I think it's a very easy thing for us to go into darker places because that's where I think comics live. They live there. I mean, they vacation in the happy spaces, but they live in the dark places because they're always finding ways to take the darkness and bring light into it. So to me, I think they go hand in hand.