Up-and-Comer Lena Waithe Is More Than Just the 'Black Lena Dunham'


There’s one particular scene from the pilot presentation for Twenties, a show centered on a twenty-something black woman named Hattie, that’s not like anything you’ve seen on television. A few black women are sitting around at a birthday party, and one, Marie, mentions she needs a pad. Their white friend, Lauren, reaches into her bag and pulls out a tampon with a huge smile on her face and offers it up. “What the fuck is that?” says Marie. So Lauren teaches her how to put in a tampon.

“That tampon and pad thing is a thing I’ve heard from black girls,” says Lena Waithe, the 29-year-old producer and creator of Twenties. “For some reason, our mothers didn’t have tampons in the house, so we just kind of followed what our moms do. [You’re taught that] you don’t wear tampons until you’re sexually active.” This particular coming of age moment was based off of an experience that actually happened to a friend of Waithe’s, as is much of Twenties, which Waithe calls her “most autobiographical” project yet. “I love putting something out there that is vulnerable and personal and weird but it’s true,” she says.

Twenties isn’t the first time Waithe’s name has popped up; last year, the concept trailer for the college-based feature Dear White People, written by her friend and co-producer Justin Simien, became a big hit on the web. About “four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over a popular ‘African-American’ themed party thrown by white students,” it sparked a successful Indiegogo campaign that allowed Waithe and Simien to raise enough money to film the movie on their terms, which they’re doing in Minnesota now. They’ve even been joined by fellow filmmaker Issa Rae, who is making a cameo in the movie and whose own success with her online series Awkward Black Girl has allowed her to move into “real” television production.

Issa Rae on the Dear White People set with director Justin Simien

Waithe grew up on the south side of Chicago – she says she lived “hood adjacent” – and when she was a teenager, moved to Evanston, a more affluent suburb north of the city. Waithe says she loved television as a kid – during our interview she made multiple mentions of the sitcom A Different World – so after doing an internship in Los Angeles through her film program at Columbia College, she immediately moved to the west coast.

Once in L.A., Waithe hustled hard to get in with black Hollywood, which she describes as “a friendly place. I just sort of landed in it and made a home for myself.” She interned at a literary agency and seems to have worked on so many different projects that I had a hard time keeping track of them we talked, from assisting on shows like Girlfriends to working with Gina Prince, the director of the The Secret Life of Bees and Love & Basketball.

It was when Waithe teamed up with Simien, who had written Dear White People (“a satire about being a Black face in a white place”) that she started getting excited about the power of the internet, so to speak. After doing a table read, the pair realized that the plot and humor of the script wouldn’t be understood unless they put it to film. They also hoped that if they got attention for a trailer, they could film the movie all Louie C.K.-style and control their message. The Dear White People trailer ended up getting almost a million views on YouTube.

“We had no idea. We were going to take that around to studios and pitch the movie but we put it online and people went crazy about it. People were pitching themselves to us,” says Waithe.

She thinks it has resonated with people because it’s not too glossy or aspirational, like a lot of black entertainment is today. “It’s not Think Like a Man but it’s not Precious. We’re not in those extremes. We’re not pretty and pristine, but we’re not poor and crazy.”

That end goal of realism is in full-force in Waithe’s Twenties series. She says that at first, they were just going to shop the project around with Flavor Unit Entertainment, Queen Latifah’s production company that’s on board. But again there was resistance from the industry, which wasn’t sure what to do with this show about young, predominantly black twenty-somethings. Waithe says they got a lot of comments about whether or not there was “a market” for this kind of show. On the flip side, they’d also get remarks that there were plenty of shows like this already out there; networks indicated that they felt like they’d already fulfilled their quota of black women on television, because of shows like Scandal. As Sarvat Hasin wrote for The Toast, “There’s no other explanation for it – networks and studio executives don’t care about the stories of women of colour, of queer women of colour.”

“People say, ‘Well Love & Hip Hop has black women on it,” explains Waithe. “[But] I’m an opinionated, shit-talking, snarky girl who owns a record player and isn’t only influenced by black culture. And I’m not seeing that on television. And I think theres a ton of black kids like that. We watch Downton Abbey. I watch Girls.”

The subject matter of Twenties and Waithe’s first name make comparisons to Lena Dunham inevitable and unavoidable. But Waithe doesn’t mind. “I watch Girls all the time. I don’t have a beef with it, I think it’s funny and great. I relate to those girls. We watch the world differently, sure,” she said. “I don’t care if my name is Lena, it’s an easy comparison. If they want to call me the black Lena Dunham, they can…but it’s a different Lena. But my voice is just as valid as hers.” She summed it up thusly: “It’s like the tale of two Lenas. This Lena just has a little more of a difficult time to get her show on air.”

Waithe says she hopes Twenties will “will show people how much more alike we are when different. When I watch Girls, I couldn’t care less that they’re white girls or live in New York.”

But for some fans getting excited about the show, they like Waithe’s work because they don’t feel like they can relate to what’s already out there. As one Tumblr user argued, there shouldn’t just be one story:

In a world where Lena Dunham is hailed queen of twenty-something narratives, Waithe makes an irrefutable case to the contrary. This Lena, THE Lena as far as I am concerned, has a storytelling style and message that deserves incredible mass attention and respect. Watch, share, and work for quality stories like Hattie’s to be heard and understood.

Not to mention the fact that Hattie, the main character, is gay. As one fan tweeted, “finally a show where the main character HAPPENS to be gay, instead of the show focused on her sexual preference!”

All of this difference has prompted Waithe to make sure her show doesn’t just live online (the blurbs below the Twenties pilot clips all say “If you like TWENTIES share it with twenty people. *This is NOT a web series*”).

“I love a webseries,” she says. “But to me it does the girl in Detroit a disservice who just watches television. It does a disservice to the girl on the south side of Chicago who doesn’t go online…It’s really important that this show get to the masses.”

Filming for Dear White People will wrap by the end of September and Waithe and her team plan to submit it to festivals when it’s finished. As for Twenties, they’re presenting the pilot to networks, hoping that someone big will bite. It’s the internet, though, that Waithe hopes will push networks to see that yes, there is an audience for this and yes, these voices and faces really haven’t been on television yet. “I want people to speak up and be like, ‘All you networks, why aren’t you doing anything with this?'” she says.

“I think if people saw this, [they would like it]. Not just black people, queer people, white people, straight people. A lot of white guys like it — a lot of white guys are like, ‘I would watch the shit out of this show.'”

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