Updated: Feb 5
Lena Waithe shows viewers that we can be whoever we want to be and does so with unprecedented swag. We can tell stories, wear Jordans on red carpets, and love whomever we choose. At the heart of everything she does is an unapologetic authenticity and a knowing that her stories are ones that need to be told- for Black and Brown boys and girls, for artists from Chicago, and for every queer person who has been misrepresented or entirely left off of screens. With every stride in her career, Lena nudges us to remember who we are and all we can accomplish. Below are a few of her works that exemplify her call for diversity and authenticity in the industry.
Master of None
In The Master of None episode entitled “Thanksgiving,” Waithe shares her experience of coming out and understanding her racial identity. In it, we see Thanksgiving at the Watkins’ household throughout her childhood and into adulthood. Waithe offers a relatable yet deeply personal account throughout the episode in her writing and performance. She sprinkles details such as her Jennifer Aniston poster, refusing to wear a dress to the table, and her mom’s mac and cheese to ground the world she’s creating. She crafts the characters of Aunt Joyce with a gambling problem, deaf Grandma Ernestine, and the unpopular girlfriend she brings home, to bring her world to life. The episode's structure, where each scene is its own respective Thanksgiving day, allows her viewers to see Denise and Dev's friendship develop, Denise's relationship with her mother evolve, and Denises’ own personal growth. There is so much honesty to the episode, and viewers can truly feel that she is writing from a place of truth. Waithe's skill is her ability to finesse a balance of humor, light-heartedness, and vulnerability and earned her the title of the first black woman to win the Emmy for Best Comedy Writing.
Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim puts forth powerful images of black love, black joy, strength, and of the experience of being black in America. Waithe crafts complex characters and a dynamic, genre-bending story. We often see both characters, who remain nameless throughout and are largely allegorical, in white spaces- interacting with nature, in a sheriff’s pick up truck. However, the film builds its true identity when the protagonists occupy black spaces- in a blues club, at the body shop, at Uncle Earl’s home in New Orleans, and listening to Luther Vandross in a low-rider. As they interact with each space and its inhabitants, we meet complex and rich characters that help bring color to a historically white cinematic space of Bonnie and Clyde road narratives. Slim is a black man who killed a cop in self-defense, but he also loves his family, he caresses Queen’s neck with care, and he challenges the idea of black excellence. Queen is a black woman who fled the scene of a crime, but she is also an excellent attorney; she likes bourbon, she is looking for someone “to kiss her scars,” and looks fucking fierce in white. They can be all of these things. As they journey from one space to the next, the film explores black life in America of the past, present, and future. We see its past in the large plantation style homes of the South and black incarcerated bodies bent over in a field. We see it’s present in the flashing lights of a cop car and police brutality. And we see its future in black art, black communities, and black leaders.
The Chi shows the intersecting lives of the people that make up the South Side of Chicago. They are bound by coincidence, but this stroke of fate reveals the inner heartbeat of Chicago. In each of their narratives, it becomes clear that just as much as they make up The Chi, The Chi makes them. They’re at different places-growing up, witnessing violence, surviving trauma, struggling with relationships. Still, the one thing they have in common is The Chi, and through Lena Waithe’s storytelling, she makes it abundantly clear that every choice they make to navigate it will stay with them. We meet Brandon, striving for a better life outside of the neighborhood, Emmett, a young father struggling with responsibility, Kevin, who is relatively care-free until he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Ronnie, who looks to rebuild after the death of his son. Viewers are instantly drawn in to uncover how their lives will further intertwine and resolve in The Chi. Just as much as we feel Chicago's heartbeat throughout the show, we feel Waithe's heart as well.