by Joneka Percentie
If you follow Dear White People or TWENTIES, you’ll know why I was so excited to talk with writer, producer, and creator Lena Waithe about her current projects and her thoughts on the representation of Black women in television. Waithe is making noise in the film and television industry and and isn’t silencing anytime soon.
There are several revision processes for screenwriting. How has TWENTIES evolved from its first conception in your mind?
It started off as a character breakdown where I sort of figured out who these characters were. And that’s usually where everything starts out for me is with the characters and who they are, and that’s how it really began. I just did a really simple character breakdown. And that’s all I had. And then I sort of outlined what I thought the first episode should be, and what the world would sort of look like. And from there I started writing the pilot. I wrote it very quickly. Fairly quickly actually, it’s one of the quickest scripts I’ve ever written–within a couple of weeks. Mainly because it was sort of biographical, so I was pulling from my own life, and then I had a couple of friends that were helping me. You know, taking a look at it. So there were a lot of people who were reading it and giving me their thoughts and input. I definitely went through some revisions, but nothing really too major. People seemed to really like what was there. There was a lot of enhancing that was happening. I think there were two characters that were sounding alike and making sure to go back and do that character work– making sure their voices were all unique and specific. That was the main thing I was doing in terms of revision, making sure these characters were very distinctive from each other. Hattie’s last monologue went through a lot of revisions until I got it right.
How do you hope to see the characters progress as the show goes on?
For me, Hattie needs to break her pattern, that’s really important for her. She needs to start dating people that are actually available. She needs to love herself more. And she needs to come to a place where she can actually believe that she’s deserving of a healthy relationship. That’s what I think for her journey which I think will be really cool. For Marie, it’s knowing that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. And knowing that it isn’t always her job to fix people. and making sure that everyone is living their life according to her plan and what she thinks is right. She needs to let go and embrace what comes. With Nia, it’s really about being more open minded in terms of who her prince charming could be and not being so stuck in a particular place. There’s a lot of room for these characters to grow and really come into their own. That’s why to me it’s really exciting; I believe the show will make it to television and that’s what I think is so exciting about it, to watch these characters grow and learn and become the women they were all meant to be.
Your Twitter handle @HillmanGrad is a nod to A Different World. How important were shows like that to you?
It’s extremely important. A Different World, I always tell people sort of changed the course of my life, because I saw that show and realized that the world was so bigger than my own backyard. I was looking at characters I had never seen before. Actors I’d never seen before and it was a different world really. It was inspiring. It was educational. And it was just funny. It didn’t matter that the main characters were black, that they were at an HBCU. You can be black, white, young, old, gay, straight it didn’t matter: you could watch that show and really hook into something. Because A Different World wasn’t just about black people or what it meant to be at an HBCU even though that was the setting. it was really about coming into your own, being away from your family and creating a family that’s around you and also being in the same place. The cool thing about setting something on a college campus is that it’s sort of a microcosm; you have to make friends with the people that are around you. You have to pick the people that are there because that’s your only option, and I think that’s kind of interesting. I think it creates for a lot of conflict, a lot of humor. And it creates for interesting world in television. For me that show was the perfect storm. As far as the talent, great writing, and a great setting. They really had an impact on society and the community. [When] A Different World was on television the enrollments for HBCUs went up. I don’t think that’s by accident. The show was impactful. People say “oh it’s just television,” I disagree. Television has a huge impact on people, our society, and also how people view us around the world. I think we need to get back in the spirit of what A Different World was about–and that was really just good writing and really interesting characters, because that’s what makes for good TV. So I’m always talking about HillmanGrad, all of my stuff is HillmanGrad. Whether it be my tumblr, my twitter. To me it’s a way of saying that these people and that show deserve recognition they haven’t gotten and I want to give it to them the best way I can.
How do you think the lack of black women behind the scenes affects the portrayal of black women on television?
If you don’t have any people of color working on a show, and yet you have a person of color in the cast, it’s sort of doing a disservice to that character. Not because you need to have a black person to write a black character, because that’s not true, but I do think that, you know I can tell when a writing room is struggling to find stories for that black character. And that’s unfortunate. I think that at the end of the day, we need–with our casts and our own screen talent– a desire to have diversity, to really show we are a diverse country. But I feel like that’s not always being reflected behind the scenes. The writer’s room and the crew and all of those things, that’s really important. I think a big deal is having more executives of color. There are definitely some, but I think that’s really important. That’s why I’m really big on talking to younger people coming up who are looking for what they want to do. Maybe they aren’t skilled at writing or being a director or being an actor and I always say “hey maybe you want to be a creative executive; that would be awesome,’ because then what you’re doing is helping out the black actors, the black writers, the black directors, because you could be on the inside championing them to get an opportunity. So I’m always hoping there will be more people of color in those jobs.
I am so excited for Dear White People. What has the transition been like so far from conception to full production?
Well that’s a loaded question because Justin Simien wrote the script seven years ago. He’s probably one of the most gifted ,most talented people I know, a true visionary, and they don’t come around very often so I’m lucky to be in his circle and just to call him a friend. We have a pretty large producing team; I’m one of five producers. So it’s a big team and working to make people aware of what this whole project has been. And [Justin’s] lived with theses characters and this script for a very long time. We did a table read to kind of hear it, just to get it on it’s feet, and that’s why I’m a big fan of table reads–I think they’re extremely important to the creative process. Also just to kind of see if you have something or not. So we did that and it was extremely successful. There was such a lovely conversation that happened after the table read and we sort of walked out of there and Justin realized he wanted to shoot a concept trailer–which [the production team] had never heard of, we had never thought about. But because his background is in PR I think that’s why the wheels started spinning he was like “hey, let’s do this,” to use as sort of a pitching tool. And then we decided with Shadow and Act they wanted to debut it. They did it and the rest was history. Then the studios started calling. We met with four different studios and we ended up going with an independent financier so that we’d have more control of the film in the long run. We had 2 weeks of prep, 4 weeks of shooting and now we’re back. So it’s a mad dash to get it done, but [...] we’re gonna make it work. It’s pretty exciting. Making a movie, there’s no one way to do it; it’s definitely not a fast process. It’s a long excruciating mind-numbing heart wrenching experience, but it’s something where you have to really, really want it. This sort of thing is not for the faint at heart. It’s not for those who give up easily, because the universe will throw everything at you. And I’m happy that we stayed up and we stayed strong and now we’re gonna get this sucker done because it needs to be out there. It needs to be.
Any other awesome things up your sleeves you want everyone to know about?
Still be on the lookout for Dear White People, please like us on Facebook, follow us on twitter, follow us on Instagram. Also join our nation builder campaign; join the union. The big thing is that we really want this to be about the community, so we want folks to be involved. We’re trying to get people updates as much as possible. It’s not just a movie it’s a movement. And then with TWENTIES, please keep sharing it with as many people as possible. It’s not sold yet. Until I sign on the dotted line I need the fans I need the people to really step up and talk about it. We need people to lift their voices and use their social media for good to get Dear White People on the big screen and help bring TWENTIES to the small screen. All we’ve gotta do is make some noise. And I think we’re good at that.
You can find more of what Lena is up to on her Tumblr and Twitter.