Lena Waithe at ComNet18
Lena Waithe writer/producer/actor, speaks with Joshua Johnson, host of NPR’s 1A. (Introduced by Gail Fuller of the San Francisco Foundation). In a wide-ranging conversation Waithe and Johnson talked about race, representation, and the power of truth and storytelling to change perceptions.
Joshua Johnson: Lena, welcome. Thanks very much. Hi, everybody. Good morning. The man in the Spandex. Y’all going to have to explain that to me later. I was downstairs. I saw him going down the stairs as I was coming up the stairs. I was like, “I knew I overdressed for San Francisco. I do it every time.”
Thank you all for making time for us, for this conversation with Lena. We look forward to getting into some of your questions and thoughts as well. We’ll get to as many as we can in just a moment. Before we dive in, I’m glad to bring you greetings from WAMU in Washington and NPR. We’re so grateful that you invited us to be part of this event and to spend some time with you. Lena, how are you? How is life in Lena Waithe’s world these days?
Lena Waithe: It’s pretty busy. It’s pretty busy, but it’s good. It’s black, it’s glorious, it’s full of love. Can’t complain.
Let me start with a simple question that might have a complex answer for you or for someone who does what you do. I’m actually going to get rid of that pillow, too, a little more. There we go. So we can just cool out. There we go. What do you do for a living?
I make art, but I think I also … I’m a person that documents the lives of people of color, so that way when we’re gone no one will forget we were here.
How straight a path do you feel it was to get to the point where you are, where that’s your definition of what you do for a living? Did you always have a bead on that, or did it evolve over time?
I think that I am a product of that storytelling. I watched stories about people that look like me as a young person in Chicago, trying to find myself or figure out what I meant to the world, and I think I only saw that by looking into a television that was a reflection. I came up at a time where A Different World was on, Cosby Show, Family Matters, Fresh Prince, but then I also watched old television shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Maude, All in the Family, Good Times, and so I always knew everything I knew about human behavior through fictitious characters.
I think that really had a huge impact on me, so it was always this thing of wanting to become a master of who we are as human beings and then try to find some sort of truth in that that everyone can relate to. That is the path. I began watching stories and then wanting to tell my own.
Did you, when you were watching TV, because I think you and I grew up with a lot of the same shows, did you look at those shows and say, “I identify with that, that’s my life,” or did you look at those shows and feel the distance between that fantasy and your reality?
I think I looked at them … Because here’s the thing. The Cosby Show didn’t reflect where I lived or how I lived, but it reflected who we are. My family, there was a lot of love, there was a lot of respect, there was a lot of appreciation for the elders, so even though it wasn’t who … The specifics weren’t the same, but the feeling was, and I understood how powerful that was, to be sitting in a space, being raised by a single parent, living with my grandmother, and I never felt disconnected to the world in which I lived, but I felt very important when I watched that show because I knew so many other people were watching it and they looked like me and it made me feel less invisible.
You’ve talked about living on Chicago’s South Side until you were 12, and then your mother moving you to Evanston, which is a suburb of Chicago, which you have described in one profile as being “like an F-ing Benetton ad.” You didn’t say “F-ing,” but this is a family conference, so I’ll say “F-ing.” What was that transition like for you as a preteen, going from the South … It almost makes me think about that show The Boondocks, where you have these two characters who are plucked out of one environment, dropped in another one, and expected to become part of that space when they’re just not wired for it, but what was it like for you?
It wasn’t really a huge shock for me, I think, because I just very early on knew how to step into a space and either own it or step into the space and be a part of it. I was very blessed in that way. I think I was always a bit of a ham. Maybe it came from watching so much movies and TV. I always really knew how to be the life of the party and how to entertain, so I never really had an issue stepping into a space, but it was unique to me, because I didn’t know what a stay-at-home mom was until I was around white people and because … I remember going to a student’s house and her mom was there and I was like, “What’s your mom doing here?
That kind of stuff exposed me to different things and people and how other people lived, and I think that is always important, because that then gives me this broader scope, so that way it’s the difference between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. You know what I’m saying? If you only see one thing and know one thing, then that is going to be what you spit out. But because I was exposed to so many different things, just naturally, and the other things I wanted to search or find or become obsessed with, it helped the way I look at the world.
Did you ever feel like you had to code switch?
All black people are bilingual, but I think that I actually don’t, or I think that was a thing that I really didn’t adopt, because I realize that who I was was more fascinating than me making a room full of white people comfortable. So me speaking the way I speak or walking the way I walk or being who I am actually got me more attention than me trying to blend or assimilate.
We got a number of questions from some of the folks who are here for the conference who submitted questions in advance. We’ll get to as many of them as we can, and we’ll get to some Q&A with you now, or a little bit later in the program today. One person wrote, “Growing up in Chicago has clearly influenced your work, obviously evidenced by your hit show The Chi. Chicago may be the most stereotyped city in America right now. How have you used representation to paint a different picture?”
To me, when I sat down to write it, it really was just this desire to tell a very raw and uncut and just human story about the people that live there and go to work every day and are raising kids and trying to get into heaven. So I really didn’t sit down with any other intention than that. I felt like people were talking about the city or writing about it in a way … It was really from a foreigner’s perspective, and being someone that obviously is from there, and that’s the first home I ever knew, I just know the people and I know how salt of the earth the are. I know how hardworking they are. I know how conflicted they can be sometimes, because the city can be tough, and so for me, I just wanted to tell their story.
I always say I don’t care about the police. If there’s ever a police story in there it’s because it’s forced in, but I care about those who are being policed. I don’t care about the system, I care about the people the system affects. I think that’s always where I’ve come from, and I think that’s really the place I wanted to start with the show and I think that’s a big reason why a lot of the character names are people directly from my life.
I have an Uncle Ronnie. My mother’s name is Laverne. Her first first name was Ethel. I knew a kid named Brandon. I also grew up with a kid named Coogi whose name we still don’t know. So I just really put so much of … Then also my Uncle Ronnie dated a chick named Tracy. I really put myself in it, and I was like, “If they can see these sprinkles of our blackness and our humanness, that they will see that we are not the monsters in which people make us out to be.”
Could I ask you to circle back to something you said earlier? At least two people who are listening right now have tweeted and quoted you on talking about wanting to document the lives of people of color so that people will remember us after we’re all long gone. How do you view that? What is it that is … What do you see in terms of us all being long gone? Is that what you think that we as a people are inexorably heading towards? Can you elaborate on that?
Here’s the deal. James Baldwin wrote about us, Lorraine Hansberry wrote about us, and he is gone, she is gone, Martin is gone, Malcolm is gone, and they wrote about that time and themselves, and the people that were leading the charge of change, and they don’t walk amongst us anymore but their spirit and their work and their words do.
Barry Jenkins’ new movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin is still in the culture because he wrote about himself. He wrote about the people that lived across the street from him and he wrote about the woman up the street while he was living in Harlem. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the quintessential story of us, and she lived and she died … She was around, I think, my age when she left us. She will never be forgotten, even though her body is now one with the earth. Her story is one that will live on forever and ever and ever because people will keep telling it. People will keep talking about it.
But she didn’t write that, I think, for her own glory. I don’t think she sat in front of a typewriter, chain-smoking cigarettes, thinking, “I want to be remembered.” She wanted us to be remembered. She wanted to make sure that people understood what it meant to be black and what it meant to want to be an elephant and not an ant, but yet the world keeps telling you you’re an ant, but you know you’re an elephant. I think Sidney Poitier’s performance will always be haunting because it always is the story of a black male. To want to be a king, but to be treated like a peasant. But not only to want to be a king, but to be a king, and to be treated like a peasant.
I think that’s what I mean. I’m not trying to be some larger than life person, where if we all stand in front of the ocean we’ll feel small. We’re made up of the same stuff. It’s just my job to document our lives.
What got you into that kind of documentary work in a more formal way? Was there a point at which you realized that writing could be your vehicle? Was there someone who encouraged you to do that? A class, a mentor, a moment that you can point to?
No, I think we’re all born with gifts. I think everybody has a gift, and either you can suppress it or you can embrace it. So this was the gift that God put inside of me when I was in my mother’s womb, and I didn’t suppress it.
At what point … I guess what I’m getting at is, was there a point at which it clicked for you? Like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing”?
No, I think I’m one of those people where I didn’t know how to be anything other than myself, and I think from a very early age I just enjoyed watching TV and reading and writing and telling stories, either verbally or writing them down. I think it’s interesting, because I’ve seen the Quincy Jones documentary on Netflix three times at this point, and my friend Rashida, I think, did a beautiful job.
Yeah, it’s excellent.
It’s great. There’s something he talks about, like sitting at a piano for the first time at a very young, young age. No piano lessons, no teacher, and he said, “Oh, there it is. This is the thing I’m supposed to do.” I think even when I was in fifth grade, my teacher said, “I look forward to reading your papers every week because you write the way you speak.” Obviously I remembered that, and just thinking, “Hmm, okay.” Again, I just never thought, “Should I try to make this a job, or what’s the plan B?” It was always, “Oh, this is the gift God gave me, so let’s go.”
Let’s get to a few more questions from some of the folks here at ComNet. Yeah. With regard to your work in television, Laura Nash from the Northwest Health Foundation asks, “From your perspective, what is television’s role in reinforcing and/or challenging common narratives?” She gives some examples of hardworking individuals pulling themselves up by the bootstraps versus the so-called welfare queen taking advantage of America’s taxpayers. “How does television reinforce some of America’s favorite narratives or perhaps myths and stereotypes?”
It’s not about … Here’s the thing. Here’s what I will say. We’ve never had a black person run a major studio in Hollywood. It’s never happened. We’ve had a black person run the country. We’ve never had a black person run a major motion picture studio. It’s true. Never had a black Bachelor.
I believe that a microphone is more powerful than a grenade. It just is. You have so much power with that, so I think there’s a couple things. There is money to be made in enforcing common narratives, but we can’t necessarily blame other people for that, because the truth is that sometimes, say, black people enjoy a common black narrative. There’s the whole empire built around that, where almost minstrelsy has changed its face, but it still exists.
It’s not just … Everybody enjoys that. There’s a part of people that like that. The color that matters most in Hollywood is green, so if the common narratives continue to make money or bring viewership, then it’ll always exist. Now, there’s more uncommon narratives that are happening, like Atlanta or Random Acts of Flyness, Dear White People, Get Out, Moonlight. The more people show up for those things and those narratives, then the more…
And I think people have. I think it’s starting to happen. I think a shift is starting to turn. But I also think both will exist. You can have foie gras on a Wednesday and you can also have McDonald’s on a Friday. It’s just a matter of … But I don’t think it’s anyone’s job. I don’t know if I believe in that. I think we as artists put our work into the world and we have no power over how it’s received.
Let me dig a little bit deeper into what you just said in terms of there having been a black president but never a black studio executive.
Studio head, yes. There have been black studio executives, for sure. Dig deeper into that on a practical level. Suppose that I, Joshua Johnson, became the head of whatever studio. Sony or Paramount or Fox or whatever. Give me some practical examples from your work of what difference that would make when someone like you comes in and says, “Hey, I got this project. This is what I want to do and this is how I want it done.” What are some of the levers that I, as a studio head, get to pull, as a black studio head, that make a difference for a creator, for a storyteller, of color? Give me a few examples.
The truth is is, I think it might be too hypothetical, but … Because at the end of the day, I can walk into a white studio head’s office and convince them to sell something because I represent a brand. I’m a commodity. That’s not, I think, where it needs to go. It’s more about someone who doesn’t have a brand, someone who is very talented and has a lot of potential, but wasn’t on the cover of Vanity Fair. It’s about getting that person into the room, because buying something from me don’t get you no brownie points, because that’s like going, “That worked. Okay, let’s do it again.” Okay.
It’s more about someone who walks through the world with a different perspective, and someone who’s willing to take risks and someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and look for a piece of talent that hasn’t really been discovered yet, that needs to be nurtured. Look, at the end of the day, every brother ain’t a brother. Having Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court doesn’t serve any of us, so it’s more about who is the studio head? What are their intentions, what do they want to do? Because I do think sometimes they can place us in positions to keep us complacent. It really is more about making sure whoever that person is, when the day comes, and it’ll be a glorious day, but I hope to make sure that that person is Thurgood and not Clarence.
How much more do you think that Hollywood is mindful, in a practical sense, of the need to portray diversity on screen? This year we’ve had a few big hit movies with all or mostly diverse casts. Some of them have been big-budget films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, and those are big hits.
I was at both premieres. It was great. The food was amazing at both parties.
I bet. I bet. I think we did both of those movies on 1A for the Movie Club as well. But the question always comes up whether or not this is actually a sign of the times or whether this is two noteworthy … Then you have Moonlight literally taking the Best Picture Oscar away from La La Land, like literally.
As it should. I don’t know. I don’t know. I love Damien.
I think one of the questions that keeps coming up from people who comment on our program is whether this means we have, for lack of a better word, arrived? Like, where we are in the struggle if you have Black Panther that does so well and Crazy Rich Asians that does so well and Moonlight that wins the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. Roll the credits, and we all lived happily ever after, right?
Look, here’s the thing. I think when Empire happened, it was a fad. When Atlanta happened, we’re en vogue. I think when Get Out happens, we are the culture. But here’s the truth. We’ve always been the culture. It’s just that our bodies are just being used for a profit. That’s something that we are very familiar with.
But I think that the difference now, in my opinion, is that the industry has recognized that layered, complex stories about people who happen to be people of color are profitable and prestigious. Those are everybody’s favorite two Ps, because you want box-office but you also want awards. So that’s what Get Out represents in one perfect nutshell. Barry Jenkins represents that prestigious thing, because it’s still tough to get folks to come out and see films like Moonlight, just because the palates aren’t as sophisticated as they could be.
But what has happened is that somebody can duplicate Empire. That’s no shade to Empire, I’m just saying you can take that and go, black folks, dancing, singing, drugs, drama. You can duplicate something like Power, where you can say, okay, drug kingpin cheats on his wife, got that, da da da. You can’t duplicate Atlanta. You can’t duplicate Random Acts of Flyness. You really can’t duplicate Get Out, because you don’t have Get Out without Jordan Peele. You don’t have Atlanta without the vision of Donald Glover. You don’t have Master of None without Aziz and Alan deciding to do something that hasn’t been done before.
So now what the industry realizes is, “Oh, so we got to go to the artist. We got to go find a Jordan Peele. We got to go find a Ryan Coogler. We got to go find a Lena Waithe.” That, now, has put the power in our hands, because they finally understand that no one can do what I can do. You can’t duplicate me. I’m going to give you something unique and special, because I’m an artist, this is what I do. You now have more artists, and I’m really honored to be in this beautiful new black renaissance that we’re living in.
Because it’s true, I sometimes get weirded out when I was like … Donald did a thing. He was like … I invited him to a screening of Whitney’s screening, just for him to look at it. I invited some folks. Tracee Ellis Ross was there, Lee Daniels was there, Donald had come. I was talking to Donald, and he was like, “Yo, Lena, I want to just get us together and just have a salon and just all just gather and talk.” I was like, “Okay.” So he did, and it’s like me and him and Janelle Monáe and Laverne Cox and Justin Simien and Rashida Jones and Tracee and Kenya Barris and all of us in one space talking about … And Issa and everybody, just talking about work and art and what we want to be and what our goals are and things like that.
What I realized is one, I feel very blessed to be a part of this amazing, dynamic group of people, but I also feel blessed that we are not afraid to gather and have conversations and support each other. What I also realized is that this can’t be duplicated. You can’t fake what we do. You can’t try to take it and sell it, the generic version. They got to come to the source. My goal is because as I’m in the forefront, or people see me on TV or whatever, or because I have an Emmy or whatever that means, is like my mission is to take the spotlight and to shed it on those artists who people don’t know yet who are just as talented, just as gifted and just as amazing, you just have yet to find out their name because they haven’t had an opportunity to put their work on TV or in movies.
I think my biggest mission is to expand the club, because right now it is a small … You can fit us all into one apartment, obviously. So my mission is that you get a mansion and we still need more room, because that’s how many of us out here is brilliant and talented. We need opportunity. That’s my long-winded answer to that question.
No, it’s a good answer. It’s a good answer, and it puts a fine point on the challenge, I think. For me, anyway, it puts a fine point on the challenge of getting studios to hear and see and validate people like you, because part of the underpinning of the business of movies, of television, of media, is being mass-producible, is you have to be able to create something and then put it out in as many different forms as possible without having to go start the hunt all over again.
Right. Look, they also want to make money and they want to be cool.
We make things cool and we make people money.
Let me get to a few more of your questions before we move the mics around in the audience and get to some of your questions here in the hall.
One member of our audience wrote, “What was one of the best pieces of advice you got as a writer? Do you think your writing improved by being around people and observing them, or do you rely more on your imagination than real life?”
That’s because there’s so much advice you get. As a writer, I mean … Gina Prince-Bythewood told me to be great. She’ll always be great. Just be great, be great, be great. I think I took that and said I wanted to be phenomenal. That is always the goal.
What does that mean? Clarify that. What does it mean to be phenomenal?
It’s basically, I’m saying … I don’t want to pick up a basketball if I’m not going to be Michael Jordan.
How do you get to be Michael Jordan? Michael Jordan talks frequently about how many free throws he missed to become Michael Jordan.
Here’s the deal. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan because there was a gift that he got that he didn’t suppress, and he pours all of his soul and all of his everything, all of his being into it in spite of other things. I think it’s like I don’t want to paint if I’m not going to be Picasso. I don’t want to do it unless I’m going to be the best that ever did it. That’s just a thing for me, otherwise what’s the point?
Because it’s too much sacrifice, it’s too much time away from my fiancée, it’s too many months that go by where I don’t speak to my mother, it’s too many times where I don’t get to hang out with my friends. It’s like, what the fuck am I doing that for if I’m not going to leave behind a legacy that is going to hold up my people in a way in which they are worthy?
Here’s another thing I was thinking. I was very blessed. I got invited to the On the Run tour, the second one. I was very lucky to get that invite. I went. I had a phenomenal time, and I realized one thing. I said, there’s a lot of people in the audience, and then you got Beyoncé on stage, and Jay-Z, obviously. You got these guys on stage, right? And you can’t have one without the other. People have to be in the audience. Everybody can’t be Beyoncé. If the world were full of Beyoncés, it would be a little unbalanced.
There’s an element of the audience believing that person on the stage is the most significant being here, but imagine Beyoncé performing with no audience. You see what I’m saying? Either you’re going to be Beyoncé or you’re going to be in the audience, but both are necessary to the process. There’s nothing wrong with being in the audience, but you got to decide, because at some point Beyoncé was like, “I’m not going to be in the audience.” But you don’t have a concert without all those people that make up the audience. So I guess I don’t want to be in the audience.
I don’t mean to psychoanalyze you, but as you were telling … No, no, no, really.
Just a thought I had. I was like, “This exists.” You have to have both. You can’t have a lead singer without backup singers, but they both serve a very significant purpose to the process.
There’s something in the way that you gave that example, the way that you told that story, just sitting here four feet away from you, everything in your body language said, “I don’t want to live in the audience.” There is something so anathema to you about being consigned to the audience and not having a chance to be Beyoncé. It washed all over you as you were describing that. Am I reading you wrong?
No, not at all. I just think that I don’t know what that is. I don’t. I think I’m always trying to figure that out and explore that. I think that’s also a part of what makes me who I am, because there are things that … I know that I have thoughts that most people don’t, and that’s okay, but I got to own that and I got to sit in that, but that’s why this is what I do for a living, because I sit and think about this kind of shit all the time.
But that’s my job, though. I have to be an observer. I have to think about these things. I have to study human behavior. I’m mindful of things. I’m a photographer without a camera. I just use a laptop.
We’ll get to some of your questions in just a moment. Before we do, I have a few more things I wanted to ask you before we open it up to Q&A. I have one rule for whenever I do Q&A at any event, and my rule is to please be generous with our time. There are plenty of people here with plenty of life experiences and plenty of insights to share, and I want to make sure we have as much time to get to as many of them as possible, so if you are generous in the way that you compose your questions, then we can get as many questions answered as possible in the time that we have with Lena.
And I’ll keep my answers short and sweet.
So I can get to as many of you as possible.
Excellent, excellent. Before we get to some questions from here at the theater, today is National Coming Out Day, and I wanted to-
Yeah, I haven’t tweeted or posted anything yet, but I will.
Yeah. I wanted to ask you-
I’m the most … I really want to say I know I’m going to always be associated with coming out. Always.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about, because there’s an aspect of storytelling to one’s own coming out. You’re telling your own story. Sometimes I feel like LGBT people like you and I experience coming out like being at a Pride parade. It’s one thing to show up, but then you have to decide what float that you’re going to walk with. It’s one thing to say, “I’m a lesbian,” it’s another thing to say, “I want to ride with the Dykes on Bikes.” That’s a whole other decision-making process, because it reveals … It’s like another chapter to your coming-out story. What do you think it takes to work through those chapters? How have you worked through those for yourself?
A couple things, as I ponder it, just the whole idea of National Coming Out Day. It’s interesting, because I saw someone’s post was that you shouldn’t necessarily push people to come out because everyone has a different experience. Obviously, some people are just very … Really want to wear it like a badge of honor, like, “Yeah, I came out eight years ago or I came out today,” or whatever it may be.
My thought, as I was thinking this morning, as I was realizing it was National Coming Out Day, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll just post something or say something” … But I remember I thought, “Okay.” That’s where I was coming to. I wanted us to live in a world where no one has to necessarily come out, because they were raised in a home where they determined … Not determined, but they told their parents what their gender was and not a gender reveal party can do that. They understood what it means to be non-binary or genderqueer or asexual or gay, lesbian, trans, or whatever it may be, that they can say that at the age at which they discover it, which is usually very young. So it’s not them even coming out, it’s them clarifying who they are.
I believe children should be able to say who they are just as easily as they can tell you what their favorite color is or what they like to watch on TV or what their favorite song is right now. I think that, to me, is really the goal, because the fact that people … When you don’t do something, it’s because you’re afraid of it, so if it takes someone a long time to come out, it’s because they fear what could happen. I think that we still have a few more generations until we get to this oasis, but I believe that that is really the mission, is to continue to educate people about what it means to be othered or queer.
A big thing, too, in terms of chapters and floats and things like that, I said when I was very blessed to win an award from GLAAD for my episode “Thanksgiving,” I said to the room that I don’t want us to divvy up. I don’t want us to sit at different lunch tables. At the end of the day, we’re all queer, so we’re all under one umbrella. We may live differently or identify differently or walk in different worlds, but we all have something in common. We all identify as some form of queerness, and that to me is one big group and one big family, and I don’t want to separate myself by saying, “Oh, I’m a masculine-presenting African American lesbian.”
It’s like, yeah, that’s fine, but at the end of the day I’m just different and you’re different. Technically, we’re all kind of queer if you think about it, but I just don’t want to separate myself. I’m proud of those things. I’m proud of who I am and how I present, and those things just come. You just figure out your swag and what you want to do and how you want to walk. I don’t know if I … That’s just been my journey, just being myself, and this is a representation of myself.
Since before we started moving mics around to get to some of your questions, you used that word “queer,” and since we’re dealing with communications professionals, I wonder how you view the value of terminology. For example, I know some black gay men who refuse to call themselves “gay” because they associate being gay with a kind of predominantly white subculture. They’ll call themselves same-gender-loving, but they won’t use the word “gay.” And I know some gay people who won’t use the word “queer” because it’s got this … It reminds them of being back on the schoolyard and it just feels like an inherently pejorative word.
I’m not knocking your definition, but I hear so many different ways of the way that people embrace and identify with terminology, with language, especially for people on our program, who are like, “I don’t know what word to use. I don’t know what these terms mean.” Whenever we do a show about trans issues, I always make the point of defining what the word “cisgender” is, and explaining what that concept is so people begin to identify with what these different words are. It feels like terminology is a frontier, particularly for the wider culture, learning how to deal with people who aren’t of the mainstream.
I think the reason why I use the word “queer” is because it just encapsulates everything that I think … Here’s the deal. I feel like when you get too bogged down in that, then it makes it difficult for others to want to approach or communicate or talk. Now, people can identify however they choose. I think my biggest thing is, again, we’re all the same, so let’s just create a word where we all can be under the umbrella, rather than …
That’s not to belittle people’s experiences, or how everyone has a very different one, because I have a very different experience, say, from Laverne Cox. But we still the same bitch at the end of the day. We still go through a lot of the same shit. She told me her mom was actually a lot like mine in the “Thanksgiving” episode. It’s like we all have the same shit. I don’t want to … We’re all the same, man. We’re all the same.
Let’s move some mics around and get to some of your questions. Where are the people … Yes, let us raise the house lights.
Let’s see. Where are our runners with the microphones? There’s one, and where’s our other runner? And there’s one. If you would, please, first of all, when you get the mic, if you would just wave your hand.
Yes, still a struggle for me to see, because it is light.
Joshua Johnson: Exactly.
If you would just introduce yourself, your name, the organization that you’re with, and then your generously worded question.
Can’t see you, but I feel you.
Sylvia Ewing: Okay. Good to see you. My name is Sylvia Ewing. I’m from Chicago-
Sylvia Ewing: So no surprise, I have the mic first.
Sylvia Ewing: I thank you for taking our mind off of crazy Kanye. I said it. But what I’d like to know is, where do you see you in a few years? Your perspective is so thoughtful, amazing. You are representing the Chicago that we know that gets overlooked, and you and Common and Chance and other people are doing that. Where do you see you in 10 years? And thank you.
Thank you. You know, it’s so interesting. I got to ask God that, truly, because I didn’t see myself here five years ago. You really do got to take things as they come, because I definitely wouldn’t have thought I’d be in a Steven Spielberg movie. An Emmy wasn’t necessarily on my vision board. Didn’t think I’d be doing the Boomerang version of the TV show with Halle Berry producing alongside with me.
Opportunities come and I want to take advantage of as many of them as I possibly can, but truthfully, my hope is I will have a production company that can rival Plan B. I hope to not be singing for my supper as much and I hope to … But I think I can’t help but include my personal life in that. I hope to have a kid that knows who they are and knows from where they come and be living in the house that I’m renovating right now with my … Who will be my wife then and no longer my fiancée, and I hope that we’ll continue to grow together and stand next to each other and continue to recommit to each other every day. Yeah, and I hope to be more in love with her than I am right now. That’s where I hope to be.
Joshua Johnson: Just to clarify, Plan B, that’s Brad Pitt’s production company.
That’s the company that did World War Z.
Yeah, they also did 12 Years a Slave. They also did Moonlight. I really appreciate what those guys are doing over there. I think I just want to build a building next to them, where when folks come in they see my black ass and my amazing exec Rishi Rajani, who is … I don’t know, me and the Asian community, we vibe. Yeah, who knows? Maybe another season of Master of None will have happened then, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. Aziz and I have been talking a little bit.
Who’s got the mic?
Nicole Gupte: Hi, I’m Nicole Neroulias Gupte from Seattle, so I have the microphone second.
Nicole Gupte: I would really like to hear about your thoughts on when a community is fighting for representation and you have people who have been held up as representatives, like a Bill Cosby, like a Kanye West. What does it mean when they behave in a way that’s not representative for the community?
Joshua Johnson: Nicole, before you sit down, what organization are you with?
Nicole Gupte: I’m a consultant.
Joshua Johnson: You’re a consultant? Was there any community in particular that was on your mind as you asked this question, or are you just asking more generally?
Nicole Gupte: I think generally, when you’re in a community that you’re not in the majority representation.
Joshua Johnson: Okay. Lena?
What happens when someone does something that doesn’t reflect us? Look, no group of people is immune to doing immoral things. Immorality is something that exists in every person, and I think that’s a very interesting thing, because it’s like, what happens when Woody Allen or Roman Polanski does something, you know what I’m saying? Because there are more of them than us, that it makes it easier to forget?
Look, the Bill Cosby thing is really difficult. It’s almost like … Here’s the deal. Here’s what I’ll say. Heathcliff Huxtable was the only father I’ve ever known, because my own father just wasn’t there or as present as he could have been. He died suddenly when I was 14. I think sometimes people forget how much an image can do for a group of people who don’t see themselves. So it’s almost like a death, or again, I’ve lost another father again.
But there’s also this other thing, too, that we create the heroes in which we desire. We create them. Bill Cosby is skin and bones. He’s made of the same stuff as we are. And sometimes we can forget that, because we’re like, “No, you’re special. There’s something about you.” I said something also recently, too. When you make someone a hero long enough, they get bored with being a hero and become a villain. I think that there’s a thing about wanting to worship other people. It’s not natural. It isn’t.
There’s a thing that I’ve been thinking about. I’m actually wearing this jacket. We shot the pilot for Twenties. Hopefully it goes to series. We’ll see what happens. Had a phenomenal team. Production design found this jacket online. They flew it all the way from Sweden or something and I watched the Whitney doc again and I saw that Robyn was wearing this jacket. I don’t know if it’s exactly this one, but it was a Whitney Houston tour jacket. The character wears it in the pilot. You’ll see it, but I say all this to say people said in the documentary a lot, and this is the thing I knew a lot too about Whitney Houston is that she would sleep all the time. She would always be … Whenever she had a free moment, every time, she would sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.
I thought about it this morning as well, I said, “I think the reason why she slept so much is because she was so exhausted from being worshiped.” When I walk out into the world there’s a … I experience it differently than you, because when I walk out into the world, I belong to you, in a way. I don’t get to live like everybody else. There’s an exchange of energy that is unbalanced. We are getting the energy from all of you, but I have to pour out more energy so that way all of y’all can get a piece of me. So that’s why before I come out here I have to do this, and when I leave I have to refill my cup, because I’m giving out more of myself, more of my energy, than most people should.
Now, imagine this times 10, this times millions. You’re not like everybody else, but you are. So the shit about Kanye or Bill or whatever, I have an understanding of how these motherfuckers can go crazy. Now, Bill is different. That is a fucking criminal. That’s criminality. But I think whether he was a celebrity or not that that was still in him to do that. So his celebrity don’t give him no forgiveness from my black ass. He’s wrong.
Kanye, the crazy shit that that’s going on, that’s … I think of him not knowing how to refill his cup. But he also too, not to get too deep, I think he also has a very different perspective, because when you go from being … From a regular, normal person, to not, you have a very different perspective of the world, because if one day you’re not, the next day you are, you see the difference in how people treat you, so there’s almost a distrust of everyone around you. Because, “You didn’t care about me yesterday, but now that I’m known and I got some money, you do.”
So you’re looking at everybody like this, like, “What? Who can I trust? Who can I believe?” Even in your own house. You’re looking at your wife like, “Why did you marry me again? Because I’m Kanye? Because I’m black? Because you wanted to add to your follower? Who knows?” That’s somebody he lay down with every night. He don’t know who to trust. So that’s just a long-winded answer about that. But I just don’t think people should worship people, but that’s not happening any time soon.
Joshua Johnson: Yeah. Before we get to the next question, which is where?
I am going to try to keep it short. I do want to get to more here. I’m sorry.
That’s okay. That’s okay. I’ll try to be a little more judicious about interrupting. But to the point that you made about Bill Cosby versus Cliff Huxtable, it reminded me of an article that Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times. The first sentence from the column is, “If a sexual predator wanted to come up with a smokescreen for his ghastly conquests, he couldn’t do better than Cliff Huxtable.”
Joshua Johnson: Yeah. Let’s get to the next question. Hi. Introduce yourself, and what’s on your mind?
Lauren Appelbaum: Hi. My name is Lauren Appelbaum, and I’m the communications director at RespectAbility. We’re based outside of Washington, DC, and our focus is on advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.
Lauren Appelbaum: What I’d love to learn from you is how can those of us with disabilities who are trying to advocate for more accurate, positive portrayals of people with disabilities in TV and film learn from how much you’ve been able to advance for people of color? I’d also like to point out that the disability market, according to Nielsen, is worth $1 trillion, so there is a money angle, which I know is important for the industry, but how do we just go about learning from you and advancing those opportunities?
Thank you for the question. The first thing I would do is tell you to take “positive” out of it. I think that’s really … There’s nothing I hate more than someone saying “positive black images.” Look, it’s funny. I’ll take the jacket off a little bit. I don’t know if y’all can see, but this is a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, called Menace II Society. A friend of mine gifted this to me because he knows me very well. He got one for me and my lady.
This is a scene in which … Menace II Society, those who aren’t familiar, one, you should rent it, then get familiar. It’s a movie about … The title’s actually really great in that it basically looks at how black men are a “menace to society.” Some of these men in the movie are a menace to their society, and it tries to capture why they feel that they have no other option but to be that, though truly they’re a menace to themselves, honestly.
Anyway, there’s a character, O-Dog, who the narrator, Caine, sells cocaine, describes as America’s nightmare, because he’s young, he’s black, and doesn’t give a fuck. This gentleman is a crackhead and he’s begging him to sell him some drugs, but he has no money. Somebody could look at that and go, “Well, that’s forcing a stereotype. That’s a common narrative.” But here’s the truth. This exists in our world, and just because it’s not fun to look at it doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid images of us. If you only look at the good parts of a group of people, you are doing them a disservice. Equality is not just my black ass being the hero, but my black ass having the ability to play the villain as well. That’s when the playing field is leveled. Michael B. Jordan’s character is just as significant as Chadwick Boseman, as being Black Panther. Both are important.
So to me, to show people who live with disabilities is to not show them always being nice and good and earnest and pleasant. That belittles that group of people, and I believe that, and I know that the WGA, our writers’ guild, we all have different meetings, like women, black writers, Latino writers, but there’s also a group for writers who live with disabilities. Sometimes they come to black writers’ meetings, sometimes we go to theirs. We try to intermingle, because we’re all othered in the world and in the business.
To me, it’s about that group of people writing about their experiences, writing about their narrative, and also, too, a person who does not live with a disability can write about it, but then they better have someone who does sitting right next to them as they work on the script. I think that is when true change happens, is when someone is empowered to tell their own narrative. And that will happen, because somebody’s going to tell the story, and then other people will feel empowered to tell their story, and so on and so on and so on and so on.
There’s actually something, speaking of, which is very interesting. We haven’t done it yet, but I saw that this young African American guy wrote this comic book about superheroes who have disabilities and how their disabilities helped them save the world. I hit my exec and I was like, “Let’s try to meet this guy and talk to him,” because that was something that even though obviously I’m an able-bodied person, but I was like, “That’s phenomenal. That’s how I think, that the things that make us othered make us dope.”
I’m going to keep them shorter. Give me three more questions. Have we got time? Can we get a couple more?
Joshua Johnson: Yeah, we’ll make them happen.
Lanae: Yeah. Hi, Lena. I’m Lanae from the African American Museum.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Got it.
Lanae: I just want to know, how do you take up space as you walk into all of these different rooms and access to show up as yourself every day?
I don’t know any other way to be, my love. I just do it. But also, too, I think that’s like, how do you fall in love, you know what I’m saying? You become the person you become. I’m from Chicago, and I got a single parent, so you resourceful. I had a grandmother from the South who get out of the South when she was 14. I come from a long line of people who don’t give a shit, and I’m just like, “Let’s go.” I don’t know. I believe that the space I take up is cool and interesting, and someone should be honored to be in the presence, so that’s what you want to do.
Joshua Johnson: Yes, ma’am?
Ashlyn: Hi, my name’s Ashlyn.
Boom. Love it.
Ashlyn: I work with All for Animals in Santa Barbara. We use therapy dogs with kids and other demographics.
I have a dog as well. Great.
Ashlyn: For those of us who are working with maybe very small or specific populations and we’re trying to tell our stories, you’re talking about common narratives. Is there something you look for in a character that you’re writing or in a story that you’re telling that differentiates them from everyone else who has that common narrative?
No. The truth is is my experience is mine, so however I look at characters or stories is going to be from my perspective. Let’s just … I’m going to look at the mic in somebody else’s hand before we lose it. Do we have … Can we do one more? One more? One more? This lady in the front?
Joshua Johnson: Let’s see if we can squeeze in one more, and then I’m going to get the last question.
Jackie Davidoff: Hi, I’m from Chicago. Jackie Davidoff. My question is there is clearly a lot of pain in Chicago. Where do you see that people have not shifted to new paradigms, and what do you think that foundation philanthropic communicators can do to be part of that?
I’m going to disagree with you. I think there’s a lot of joy in Chicago. I think that, look, man … I think we are all a product of a country that was built on the backs of others, and that hasn’t been … There’s been no real appropriate apology for that, so whatever pain that exists in folks that look like us is because we’re waiting for an apology. And until that comes, we’re going to continue to live in a space in which we act as everything is okay, and it’s not.
Joshua Johnson: One last question before we let you go. You-
See, I could have got this young lady right here. She was saying … Come on, let’s give it to her. Who cares, man? We got time, man. Give her the mic. My bad.
Go ahead. No, ask it. No, please. Ask.
You get yours. You get yours. Now it’s pressure. Now you got to make it great.
Jade Floyd: What is the best story that you’ve never told?
Joshua Johnson: Damn, that’s better than the one I was going to ask.
That’s a good one. That’s a good one. That’s good. It’s good. It’s good.
Joshua Johnson: Don’t come on my job and show me up. Last question.
Best story I never told. I haven’t told my love story. Yet. Yet, because it ain’t done. It ain’t done yet, so I hope to get to a place further, further down the line where I can step back and tell the story of us, she and I, and I hope that people can see themselves in us, two girls from Chicago, her from the suburbs, me on the South Side. I went to Columbia College, she went to Columbia University. It’s all right. Always date someone smarter than you who you can learn from.
We’re at the very beginning. We’re engaged and we have a dog and we have a place, and we’re just looking forward to building a life, but like I always try to tell people, is I can make a bunch of movies and TV shows and act in a bunch of things, but the truth is, at the end of the day, she is my legacy. She’s the legacy, because when I go, you’re going to do that thing, in memoriam, where I’m going to get maybe four and a half seconds. That’s real shit, you know what I mean? And that’s going to be that, and people are going to be like, “Okay.” But if she can remember me fondly, if I can live up to the person which she thinks that I am, then it will all have been worth it.
Joshua Johnson: Ladies and gentlemen, Lena Waithe.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much.
Lena Waithe: Thank you, brother.