When Lena Waithe created and wrote The Chi she only had one thing in mind: ”To show that black people are human—that’s my goal for the show.”
The ambition to humanize African Americans and people of all minorities reverberates through every piece Waithe envisions, writes, and acts in. Her work is profound because it reveals a simple truth—and that’s what makes her paradigm-shifting. The rest of the industry has taken notice, and in 2017, she became the first woman of color to win an Emmy award for best writing in a comedy series for her Master of None episode, “Thanksgiving.”
The episode, which Waithe says is autobiographical, chronicles the coming-out story of her character, Denise. The sensitivity and nuance with which she details Denise’s growth as a gay woman mirrors Waithe’s personal emergence as a leading entertainer and feminist: She’s not here to steal the spotlight or peddle her ideas—she wants to paint her reality, and the realities of Americans who are otherwise ignored, with gentler strokes.
In The Chi, a 10-part drama on Showtime about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she sparks complex conversations about the effects of gun violence and racism in America through the lens of one community’s experience. The show serves as a foil to media reports of Chicago’s skyrocketing homicide rates, which Waithe finds dehumanizing. “The more people see us as human beings, the more they will value our lives,” she tells Variety. “So when they hear a story coming out of Chicago about a young black boy being shot and killed, it won’t just be background noise, but they will wonder what he had for breakfast that morning. They’ll wonder if he had an older brother. They’ll wonder what he liked to do for fun.”
In an interview with Quartz, Lena talks about how to make the entertainment industry reflect the world around us—and how you don’t need an “800-lb. gorilla” to get people to listen to good ideas.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
I think every studio head, network president, and show runner should walk into their offices and ask, “Is everyone in the room?” And by that I mean they should look at society in all of its splendor and make sure their offices reflect that world. There should be a black person, a Native-American person, a Latino person, a trans person, an Asian person, a woman, someone with a disability, etc. And if everyone isn’t in the room, they should immediately start taking steps to make sure their work environment is inclusive.
I believe everyone should have a voice. This is a really big idea, but I think that if people in positions of power made it their business to ensure their offices looked like the world outside, I think the world of entertainment would start pumping out some really great content.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I’m obsessive. I don’t think you can really make it in this business unless you’re obsessed with being the best at your craft.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
That women are paid equally.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
That you don’t need an 800-lb. gorilla to get something sold. The truth is, content is king. And if you have great content, people will want to be in business with you. Usually, that 800-lb. gorilla is lazy and is only there to make money off your talent.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
Whenever I felt down, I would just watch movies and TV that inspired me to get into this business in the first place. Then I would say, “Why am I sitting around feeling sorry for myself? I should be writing.”
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
Well, I think of colleagues as people. We don’t just work together: We’re working toward the same goal. And my mission isn’t just to only talk about work. I like to spend time with my colleagues outside of work and get to know them. I like having their back at work and in life.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“You can write your way out of anything.” Karin Gist [co-executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy] gave me that advice. She said another wise writer gave it to her. I’ve found it to be very true.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Don’t be a dick.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… that there should have never been a sequel to Home Alone.
I wish people would stop telling me… to smile.
Everyone should own… a really comfortable couch.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.