Lena Waithe & Liz Plank | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Lena Waithe, Writer, Producer, Actress, and Liz Plank, Executive Producer of Divided States of Women at Vox Media, on celebrating diverse women in Hollywood
- Ladies and gentlemen Lena Waithe and Liz Plank.
LENA WAITHE: Hey.
- Oh wow, wow, wow. Hey.
LENA WAITHE: Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.
LIZ PLANK: I believe the exact subject line of the email that I received with your video from Makers was, "NO, YOU'RE CRYING! " in all caps.
LENA WAITHE: Got it.
LIZ PLANK: And, in fact this video is amazing. Your story is amazing. You are amazing.
LENA WAITHE: Thank you so much.
LIZ PLANK: I usually try and crowd source questions for interviews, and this is the first time I've not been able to do that, because every person who sent a question was, can I hang out with her?
LENA WAITHE: Oh! Yes, yes is the answer.
LIZ PLANK: So, obviously-- yeah. I mean, same. Yeah, you have a lot of fans out there.
LENA WAITHE: I see that.
LIZ PLANK: So how are you feeling right now? "The Chi" has been renewed another season, which is amazing.
LENA WAITHE: That's good, that's good, Thank you, thank you.
LIZ PLANK: How does it all feel?
LENA WAITHE: You know what? It feels normal. It feels like that's what's supposed to happen. I think I feel as though my life and my steps have been ordered. And so I think I continue to be obedient, and put my head down, and do the work, and just really try to be kind, try to be a good collaborator. And I think try to be as raw, as open, as vulnerable, as broken, as I can be. Like, own it, own all of it, and just try to work through it on the page. And then, hopefully, someone can see their brokenness in mine when they watch something I've made.
LIZ PLANK: What does it mean to own being broken for you?
LENA WAITHE: I think it means just to sort of look at all the flaws that you see in the mirror and zoom in on them. I think that's the thing. It's like this sort of thing I try to do when I'm writing is run toward the problem. If there's something bad happening to a character, say, OK, how can we get right up in that problem's face? Because that's the interesting part. Whatever people are bashful about or nervous about or ashamed of, that's the magic, that's your story, that's your testimony.
LIZ PLANK: Do you think people run away from those things?
LENA WAITHE: It's interesting, because I try to mentor as much as I possibly can, so I have these sort of I call them baby writers that I work with. And it's funny because they'll-- and I was very blessed. I got to go be a mentor for the Sundance Episodic Lab, which was phenomenal. It was an amazing-- it was really an amazing experience for me. I don't know if the Fellows were very excited. I was excited to see them. But the thing was I would read their material, and it was obviously really good and really strong, or else they wouldn't be there, but when I would talk to them they would give me these interesting stories. They would tell me these things, and I was like why is that not in here?
LIZ PLANK: Right.
LENA WAITHE: The story you just told me is a much better cold open than what you currently have. And they'd go, oh, well, I don't know. I mean, that was a sort of crazy thing that happened and I don't really talk about it much. I'm like, well the thing that you're afraid of is probably going to linger in an exec's mind long after they've read it. That's going to make them not just have a general with you, but want to call their boss into the room and say this is something we need to make. And that's the difference between writing pretty and writing naked.
LIZ PLANK: Right. And you had incredible mentors. You worked for Ava DuVernay. Everyone, when they talk about you, they just say your work ethic is incredible, no matter what level you worked at. What would be your advice for young people who are entering the industry?
LENA WAITHE: I mean, honestly? You have to be obsessed. You have to be obsessed. I think it's a thing of the trait of mine is I'm obsessive. I'll still-- I remember being a kid and watching episodes again and again and again. I'll still, much to my fiance's chagrin, I'll put on an episode of "Mary Tyler Moore" and just study it and look at it. Like The Lars Affair is a perfect episode of television. Or look at "A Different World," Mommy Dearest is one of my most favorite episodes.
And that's the thing. Looking at these episodes of television that are old but still looking at them now and finding things and saying, oh, that's interesting. They waited a beat before he comes in to deliver that, and that gets a bigger laugh. Things like that, I'm obsessed with it. And it's funny because I really relate a lot to athletes. There's this really great documentary that Kobe did about his sort of life, and it's true. He's aware that he's like, I know I'm not like everybody else. I know I'm not normal. Because he's like, even in my darkest hour, I'm shooting free throws. Because that's all he had, you know? So for me, it has to be everything to me, to be amazing at it. And the funny thing is, I don't look at the Emmy as like, oh OK, I've mastered the craft. It's like no, in that moment I was the best I could be in that moment, but I'm still very much a student. I'm still trying to perfect it. I think that's the goal, is to be as great at it as I can possibly be.
And it does feel like second nature, it does when I'm typing or it comes and the muse is there, I can feel it. But to me, it's a constant marathon. I'm always trying to figure out how can I be phenomenal?
LIZ PLANK: Right. I love that. Speaking of an Emmy award, your Emmy award, which is incredible and made amazing history. You were the first woman of color to win for comedy writing. There was only one other women of color who had ever been nominated.
LENA WAITHE: Mindy.
LIZ PLANK: Mindy Kaling, who's amazing as well. You know, I was at home watching that, and I was so excited and ecstatic, but at the same time it was like, how did it take so long? How do we ensure that the floodgates are open and the diversity of voices remains in Hollywood?
LENA WAITHE: Well here's the thing. Hollywood is a heightened version of society. So--
LIZ PLANK: Yep.
LENA WAITHE: The playing field is not leveled. It still isn't, and I think there's this element that we start to trick ourselves, because you say, oh well, we've got "The Chi," you've got "Insecure," you've got "Atlanta," aren't we doing better? Shouldn't we pat ourselves on the back?
But if you look at the numbers-- look at how many channels exist. Look at how many streaming services there are available. And then come tell me about how great we're doing in terms of shows created by people of color, run by people of color. It's still a white man's world.
The interesting thing is there's a shift happening where people want their entertainment to reflect the society in which they live. It still doesn't, but we're getting there. And I think to me it's not just about visibility, but it's about the quality of the content. So people say, oh I know we've come so far. It's like, well we still don't have a black "Handmaid's Tale." We still don't have a black "Mad men." We've got black folks doing black folk shit.
LIZ PLANK: Right.
LENA WAITHE: Which is comfortable, it makes people feel comfortable. It's interesting to me where you see certain shows where you have black people being athletes, being musicians, being drug kingpins. That's comfortable. It's a comfortable role for us to be in. My goal is even to make people-- I think that's interesting about "The Chi." The main character is a chef. That's his dream. I think to me it's, how do we make audiences uncomfortable when watching characters of color doing things that they do?
LIZ PLANK: And do you think-- you talk about the reflection, that Hollywood needs to reflect society, or it's reflecting a society that's not advanced enough. Do you think that Hollywood can change society as well?
LENA WAITHE: I think we can try. I think the most powerful pen is one held by an artist. I think the images that people see, that they take in every week-- I think more people watched "This is Us" than watched The State of the Union speech.
LIZ PLANK: Yeah. Clap. No? OK. Yeah, let's clap.
LENA WAITHE: But I think-- and I think the image-- because I recently watched the episode of "This is Us". It was a great episode after the Super Bowl. But I don't think people realize how revolutionary it is to see a black man tell his black daughter that she made his heart do a somersault. You know what I'm saying? That is extremely important, to see a caring father loving his daughter in the intimate, quiet way. Not unlike a white father would love his white daughter. I think that's really-- that simple scene is revolutionary. I think seeing people of color be human beings on television is revolutionary, because, again, we're trying to unlearn these things that we've been fed for so long. I mean, whether it be Stepin Fetchit, Mammy, you know, Sambo, these the piccaninnies, those were the early images in Hollywood. That's what people saw.
And so I think it's still-- what we're trying to do is sort of almost a therapy now, of showing a character like Essa on television. Showing a character like Brandon on television. Showing a character like Donald Glover's character on "Atlanta." I think this is a part of the chemo, and it's the early stages. We're still weak, we're still throwing up, we're losing our hair. And we are not in the clear yet. It'll be a while, but I think it is going to take not just those who are making the art, but also we need the execs, who may not look like me. Because oftentimes when I walk into a room, I'm pitching to folks that don't look like me, don't walk the world in the way I do, and don't live in the same neighborhood I do. But I have to do my best to explain to them why my story is important.
And I think that I'm very blessed. You know, I think the execs at Showtime, know they were like, yeah, this story needs to be told. That is an ally.
LIZ PLANK: So what do you do when you have to go into these rooms?
LENA WAITHE: I've got to go, you know, be amazing.
I love-- it's interesting, because it's like, you know, I think a lot of us, black people in the industry, can relate to Barack Obama. We know what it's like to have to be excellent just to get in the room. I really like-- I can't remember who said it, but I think Tom Hessy said it-- but in order for Barack Obama to be President, he had to be Harvard graduate, he had to be the first black president of Harvard Law, he had to be just this phenomenal, exceptional human being. All Donald Trump had to do is be white and rich.
LIZ PLANK: Right. Which is, you know. Is he rich?
LENA WAITHE: I think there's still an element of that in Hollywood. To be successful, there's fewer things you need when you're a white male. When you're a black woman that happens to be queer, you got to run a little bit faster, you've got to work a little bit harder, and you damn sure better be phenomenal on the page. Because they read me before they met me at Showtime, and then they met me. And they said, OK. And I'm grateful for the collaboration, I'm grateful for the marriage, and I look forward to a long relationship with those guys.
LIZ PLANK: Barbara Smith, said that instead of the word allies we should use the word co-conspirators. What would you like people in the industry, white men in particular, if you would like to tell them what to do, I would love to know what you think they should do to be-- because I would ask you how do we make Hollywood more diverse, but I think it's unfair to put that burden on people of color, on women. What would you like allies in the industry, or co-conspirators, to do?
LENA WAITHE: Honestly, to get out of the way.
Because the truth is, let us do our thing. Not let, I don't want to ask for permission. We're going to do it. I'm going to make art, whether I have a platform or not. But I think the biggest thing is there's an interesting thing about-- I've sort of realized about particularly people of color. Even though we're speaking English, we're speaking another language when we talk to each other. And I think sometimes that may bother those who are not people of color, to be standing near that conversation and not be fluent in it, and not be a part of that conversation. I think there needs to be a new day in which our white allies are grateful to witness that dialogue rather than needing to be it.
LIZ PLANK: It says, "Please wrap up." Now it says, "Time's up." Um, so--
LENA WAITHE: Time's up.
LIZ PLANK: Thank you so much, Lena.
LENA WAITHE: Thank you for having me.
LIZ PLANK: I wish we could do this for hours. And thank you all for listening. Thank you.
LENA WAITHE: Thank you all.
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