Lena Waithe Wants You to Give Them a Chance: “White Male Artists Get Chances All the Time”

Getty / Aaron J. Thornton

Image Source: Getty / Aaron J. Thornton
Lena Waithe is setting out to redefine just what luxury means when it comes to the entertainment industry thanks to a recent campaign with Häagen-Dazs called, “That’s Dazs.”

As part of the campaign, Häagen-Dazs donated $100,000 to the Mentorship Lab at Waithe’s Hillman Grad Foundation.

The 10-month program provides “opportunities for marginalised storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their career in television and film” and consists of three separate tracks: television writing, screen acting, and executive development. The program not only offers access to the Hillman Grad Network of industry professionals but opportunities to shadow a writers’ room and a monthly speaker series with industry experts.

“I think it’s a luxury to work in this industry, but I think we can’t treat it as such. We have to make it more accessible to everybody,” Waithe told POPSUGAR US. “People think that being in the business, working, and being successful is for only a select few. What we’re trying to say is, ‘No, it’s for everyone.'”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to change the narrative, as the industry often requires people to work at jobs they’re not being paid for. “Not everybody can afford to do that. What we’re trying to do, is make it possible, so that way they can come and work and learn,” she added. “They don’t have to be stressed out about how they’re going to pay their bills or how to pay for the classes.” Thanks to Häagen-Dazs, it’s become that much easier to pull off.

“It’s about really investing in the community, literally and figuratively. With the money they’ve given us, we can help add that to paying teachers and resources that they could possibly need, anything else that may come up,” she continued.

“Because the truth is, it’s the money part that stresses people out, because they’re like, ‘I don’t have the money to move. I don’t have the ability to work as an intern and keep my lights on.'”

“People think that being in the business, working, and being successful is for only a select few.”

The Mentorship Lab first came to be after Waithe and film producer Rishi Rajani had each done programs that left things to be desired when it came to certain skills and takeaways. “Because we work in the industry day-to-day, there are the things that we’re learning on the fly that we want to share with the next class,” she explained. “There are things that we can’t teach because this industry changes for each new generation. So I think it’s exciting that we learn from the mentees because they tell us, ‘Hey, we’re really stressed out about social media.’ And for me and Rishi, because we’ve lived with it so long, we’re like, ‘Yeah, it just comes with it.’ But for them, they’re freaked out because they look at their social media every day and people are getting dragged and getting attacked for their work. So we try and tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid of it. It’s fine. It just is what it is. It’s a tricky time in our society,’ but again, that’s something that I wasn’t thinking about when I came into this industry.”

Image Source: Shayan Asgharnia
Between the opportunities with the Mentorship Lab and the upcoming Amazon Prime Video series Them: Covenant, Waithe has plenty to be excited for. “We have a couple of mini-roles that are going to be opening up, particularly with Amazon, that we get to have these writers come to sit in the room,” she said. “Obviously we have Them: Covenant coming out April 9th, which the streets are already talking about, produced and written by Little Marvin. And then The Chi is coming back. We now have a release date, May 23rd, for season four, and then Twenties is going to start filming in May. So we got a bunch of other stuff that we’re cooking and we’re excited about.”

With the mentees, she’s looking to get them hands-on experience with projects she’s involved in. “We’ll let them audition and see if there’s space for a staff part on one of these new shows. They really will have full access to everything we’re doing,” she added. “And then also too, the writers in the lab are going to have completed scripts very soon, so the actors will come and be the readers for those scripts. They’ll get to know each other, they’ll get to learn each other’s voices and what they’re good at and things like that. It’s just going to be a really exciting time to build, to grow, and to just encourage these folks to be creative and do whatever comes to their minds and to not stifle them in any way.”

“That doesn’t mean that if you’re a Black person, you can’t tell stories about horror through the Black lens anymore just because he did it first.”

Speaking of creative minds, Waithe is aware of comparisons between Little Marvin’s Them and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. “It’s just so funny because Jordan Peele opened up a huge door, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re a Black person, you can’t tell stories about horror through the Black lens anymore just because he did it first.”

She continued, “But I went to a screening of Get Out and we were all blown away obviously by the movie. And then afterwards, Jordan told us, ‘You know what’s interesting? I wrote this movie before Obama even got in office.’ So, when a thing comes out, often it can be years after it started.” There wasn’t actually a plan when it came to the timing of Them‘s release. “It was just the right timing,” she divulged. “It was about when it was done, it was about when it was completed. That production also ran into COVID, like a lot of other productions, so there was a little bit of a delay on it. So, when something comes out it often has very little to do with the subject matter. But I definitely think our society goes through cycles.”

Image Source: Getty / Paras Griffin
For Waithe, allowing an artist the creative license to let their work stand the test of time is what’s important. “If the work stands the test of time and there’s something that’s saying something about our society that hasn’t really been said in that way before, I think it’s valid and I think it’s important,” Waithe explained. “I just don’t believe in stifling artists. We can never win when we do that. When we started telling artists what they can and can’t do, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Because the truth is, white male artists, get chances all the time. Nobody’s telling a white dude, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’ or maybe we are, but the truth is, Black artists deserve to be free to tell whatever story they want to tell. We at least deserve that.”

Her statements are particularly true when it comes to the Twitter commentary that took place when the trailer for Them was first released. Instantly people assumed it was trying to be Lovecraft Country or Get Out when in actuality, it is far removed from both. “I can’t even explain to people what they’re going to see. Can you? It’s like Little Marvin’s brain is unlike anyone’s I’ve ever experienced,” she revealed. (She’s right. After seeing the screeners for Them, I still haven’t found the words to describe what’s going on.) “Even the pilot. I was like, ‘Who are you? Where’d you come from?’ And this is his first thing. I’m also walking him through it. I’ve been there and I’m trying to hold his hand and say, ‘Hey, how you doing? Brace yourself. Gird your loins.’ And he’s just like, ‘Look, I’m a half Indian, half-Black, gay man. I’ve been thrown every name and hate that you can imagine,’ by people that don’t look like him and by people that do.”

Them tackles a number of difficult topics, including racism, death, mental illness, and murder. With an uptick in media centring Black trauma, there’s a question of why Little Marvin felt the need to tell this particular story. “I hope you can understand why he did this or why he felt the need to tell this story. Because it’s not in any way, I don’t believe, him trying to exploit anything or anything like that at all,” Waithe shared. “It really is an artistic expression of what he’s been thinking about and what’s in his mind. And I think that he has a right to do that. These are the times we’re in and we have to accept that. I do know this work will last and that’s what matters the most.”

“Black artists deserve to be free to tell whatever story they want to tell. We at least deserve that.”

As for what Waithe wants audiences to take away from Them, of which she’s an executive producer, it’s complicated. “People ask, ‘What did you want people to take away from the work?’ and I always say, ‘Whatever they bring to it,'” she disclosed. “Because if people want to come to it and say, ‘I want to be angry about this,’ they will. If people want to come to and say, ‘I want to have an open mind and just take this as a beautiful piece of art,’ it will be that too. It just depends.”

It’s still to be seen what audiences with think of Them when it premieres on April 9. “We’re going to be living in a very different society 10 years from now and ten years from then and ten years from then. That’s just how it is,” she reasoned. “There are things that will be the same and there are things that’ll change; audiences evolve and change, but the work is there. That’s why any works that we continue to revisit and we continue to watch in life is what makes them classic because we keep them alive.” Audiences aren’t the only ones that evolve and change, it all goes back to the creators. For Waithe, Little Marvin, and the mentees of the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab, there’s hope that the work is something people won’t forget. “It’s the work that people want to go back and revisit,” she continued. “That’s the kind of work I love because I know I’m always going back.”

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