Lena Waithe on “Twenties” and the Highs and Lows of Being Black, Queer, and Masc in Hollywood

Feature Image of Lena Waithe by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

When I first had the opportunity to briefly interview her back in May, as a part of her press tour for the third season of Master of None, I said “there are few queer creators working who have a reputation that enters the conversation before they do quite like Lena Waithe.”

Six months later — and that’s never been more true. Having spent more time with her, I’m still struck by the unhurried confidence of Lena Waithe’s pace. There was not a person I told about this interview who didn’t have an opinion about what was to come, but in her presence, Lena doesn’t bristle or fold when pushed back against. She also won’t be deterred. I came prepared to our interview ready to talk about her indie darling comedy Twenties, now airing in its second season on BET (weekly recaps written by yours truly right here on Autostraddle!), but almost immediately it became clear that Lena had other plans.

When your interview subject has: created the show with the largest cast of Black women LGBT characters on television (that’s The Chi); created the show with the first Black butch lead protagonist on television (that’s Twenties); written the series with the first Black lesbian romantic lead couple on a major streaming network (that’s the third season of Master of None); and pretty much seemingly single-handedly reshaped the possibilities of Black lesbian storytelling on television in just the last four years, you go ahead and follow her lead on what to talk about.

What started off as a conversation about Twenties became something closer to a career retrospective, exploring not only her shows, but the frustrations that accompany being The First, what it means to find an audience when your shows are too gay for Black media and often too Black for mainstream (read: white) gay audiences, and yes — most surprising to me! — her own opinions about the online discourse around Black trauma and violence has become synonymous with her name in some circles.

Our talk ended up nothing like what I imagined, but something much more nuanced, detailed, honest. An exchange between two queer Black women, who really fucking love television and film (sorry there was no other way to say that) and are trying to figure out how to navigate our different sides of this industry. Real shit? It was one of the best conversations I’ve had this year.

If Lena Waithe’s reputation, almost permanently marked on level “notorious,” enters the conversation before she does — well then, she’s also intent on having the last word. And you know what? Maybe some of the middle words, too.


Carmen: One of the things that is really important about Twenties, and what we started to rethink about our coverage of the show is… Well, to be really honest, what really started it was our interview for Master of None, in which I banged some doors to get literally five minutes. And we were all very excited even to just get those five minutes! But then during that brief interview, you were willing to reach out a limb and say to your handlers. “Can we get an extra two minutes so that she can ask a second question?” It’s a small thing.

But at that moment was I was like, “That is how we’re going to be able to get so much done in this industry as queer people, as queer Black people, by lifting up each other on these platforms.” It really stuck with me.

I started thinking about Twenties. And then that summer, when we were planning our fall coverage, I said, “I think we need to give Twenties full recaps.” And we do full episode recaps of The L Word, and we do full episode recaps of some of the gay superhero shows.

We’ve never done something like this for a Black show that wasn’t about superheros; for a show on BET. We’ll cover it in other ways, we do reviews, or include it in roundups — but that weekly commitment of a full article, every week, top to bottom, jokes, smart commentary? We hadn’t done that.

And I was like, “I think that is a disservice.” And our other editors agreed. So, we’re doing it this year.

Lena: I appreciate that.

Carmen: One of things you’ve been talking about [in the past], and that we’re getting at here is, it is so hard right now to get attention on this show! And I’ve even noticed a difference from your team this season — with them reaching out and asking, “Can we get you screeners? Are you interested in an interview?”

So I’m wondering if that was something that was intentional for you this year? Your decisions about how we’re going to start getting eyes to Twenties.

Lena: Yeah, I think it definitely is. And the truth is, the audience is going to take a show and run with it. You know what I’m saying?

They’re going to talk about it. So it’s interesting, because if a show that is maybe on Amazon, more people have access to it. Or if the subject matter is about Black family in a very white neighborhood — that’s a more clickable thing. Twenties is about three Black women tackling a dream, one of them happens to be a queer woman.

Does that get enough attention? Does that feed into maybe a story that other people want to talk about? You know what I’m saying?

Carmen: Yeah.

Lena: I want to understand. Some people could say, “She [Lena] leans toward these types of stories.” But Twenties does not fit that narrative. And you can’t act like it don’t exist, and also too, there’s a queer character at the center.

Carmen: A queer masc character at the center.

Lena: Queer masc character at the center. But how many times do you see us on Black blogs? You know what I’m saying? Black sites.

Carmen: No, I do. I think —

Lena: But everybody’s like, “Where’s The Chi Season Five”? [Editor’s Note: As of August 2021, The Chi was on pace to become the most streamed series in Showtime’s history]. And I’m looking forward to doing it! But who’s at the center?

Now we got Nina and Dre in there. We got Imani.

But Twenties is the center. It’s a comedy. And it is on a Black network! So there becomes a question, “Why doesn’t it get as much talk?” Now that I can only ask the question, I can’t answer it because it’s my show. So I do lean on journalists and publications to look at the whole thing and go, “Let’s have a conversation, folks.”

I have to look at you to write about that.

Carmen: Go ahead. Yeah, that’s why I asked the questions.

I think for me, what I think about is… The thing that I think always draws me to your work, to be honest with you, Lena is… OK. We’re having a very real conversation. I’m not trying to take us in these dark places. But I know, and you know, sometimes your work has been seen as very controversial.

But what I have always continued to stand for — and what I find to be really interesting about it — is that I don’t know much other work I’ve seen on television that is so wholly Black and so wholly queer at the same time. And what I find to be… When you look at, say for example, The Chi. The third season of The Chi, had at that point the largest cast of LGBT Black women we’ve ever had on television. Period. On any show.

When you look at Master of None, there we go again, something that’s never happened before. Now we have a Black lesbian couple in the center of a major streaming network show. That’s never happened, right?

And to be honest with you, Twenties, I do think it gets the the least amount of press. But for me, if we’re to look at the arc of your career — I believe Twenties is the shining gem of it. Because I think of the show and I’m like, “Okay, this is a show that’s on a Black network that is historically homophobic and has been a real problem in our community for that. And now here is the gayest, Blackest show I’ve ever seen.”

And then in the second season, it came back and it was like, “And we’re going to have an Official After Show. And the host of the after show is going to B. Scott.” You wanna talk about about legends in our community! You feel me? So I guess if I could ever ask you one —

Lena: Actually, can I ask you a question?

Carmen: Yes, please.

Lena: What about my work makes it controversial?

Carmen: I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sor —

Lena: No. Because we’re having a real conversation. Words are powerful.

Carmen: I think —

Lena: Here’s the deal. I want to be clear about how media also affects how we see our queer heroes.

Carmen: That’s true.

Lena: So you have been almost taught to think of me as a controversial artist. But the work that I’ve done is not unlike those that have come before me. The difference is, those directors and those writers have been straight Black men.

Carmen: I think that’s an interesting question. So let me spin that back to you —

Lena: We’ve just celebrated 25 years for Set It Off. Right?

Carmen: Right.

Lena: It was everywhere floating around. Yeah, Set It Off. I love Set It Off. How does that movie end? Three black women shot down. We will never forget Cleo going.

And then F. Gary Gray was a good director.

Carmen: Yeah.

Lena: Black man.

Carmen: Love F. Gary Gray.

Lena: All I’m saying is… You know what I’m saying? Just trying to compare it [ to Queen & Slim ] —

Carmen: No. I mean, Ok. So.

So if you want my… I’m in no way… I’m in a tough situation in that our publication is an indie publication, I’m going to keep it very real with you. I want to continue to have these conversations with you. I don’t want to say something that’s going to end our professional relationship before it starts.

I also think if we’re going to keep it at a buck with each other, and keep it to where we’re going as a community, I hear you. I think the Set It Off comparison is a very fair one. And that’s a good one. I’ve even personally written about how much I love that movie for the 25th anniversary.

I think what we have to think about is also the context in which these art forms land. And I say that as someone who respects your work.

I think that when we’re thinking about something like Set It Off, when we’re thinking about Boyz n the Hood, we are thinking about what were the stories in the 90s. We’re also thinking about the fact that it wasn’t a time when you could open up your phone and see a Black person get murdered while you’re scrolling your timeline. So I do think that the sensitivity around that has changed in 25 years, by the nature of also the ways in which we see violence every day. And that’s maybe not even… maybe that’s not a fair thing to put on you as a creator.

Lena: No. No.

Carmen: But I do think that that makes a difference.

Lena: But what about Squid Games?

Carmen: Right. But I think with Squid Games, we’re also not talking about Black violence. I think what people, for me, and again I say this as someone who loves and appreciates your work.. Queen & Slim, that’s probably not my favorite. I do love Twenties.

I think when we think about how we’re talking about Black lives, and we’re talking about Black love — and I think Queen & Slim was very much so promoted as a Black love story … you know what I mean? We have to think about what are we showing our community.

And now to keep it really honest, I don’t necessarily think all of the stuff that lands about “Lena Waithe is controversial” is fair. You’re not going to see a lot of those critiques in my writing, because I do try and look at the larger arc of your career. But I think if we’re going to ask about how these creations get made, it’s just an interesting conversation to think about, “Well, what context are they landing in? Are people already tired?”

Lena: But that sounds like what’s being said is that a Black artist, there are certain things you can and can’t do, correct?

Carmen: I would never say that. I don’t say that.

Lena: Of course not. But in essence —

Carmen: Yeah. I don’t know that to be true —

Lena: A Black artist doesn’t get to do what?

Carmen: Yeah, I feel you. I feel like you do what you do —

Lena: Because you would never say because there’s Tarantino again, going back and looking at Django as just… you know…

Carmen: I do think what I’m hearing in what you’re saying — just to bring it back round to Twenties and a frustration that I definitely feel you on, is “where do I get to have the full breadth of my work?” Right?

Because Tarantino did get to make Django. Tarantino also made Pulp Fiction, Tarantino made a billion and.. to be fair I just tried to think of a non-violent Tarantino movie, and that was never going to work. But I think what someone… like what F. Gary Gray has been able to do is that he may make Set It Off, but he also gets to make some very light hearted action movies.

And what you’ve been able to do, in a way that no one’s been able to do, is tell a variety of our stories. And that is really —

Lena: Yes. The question becomes it’s because I’m queer, because I’m woman, now I’m being controversial.

We’re having a real conversation. I’m just trying to write things that are interesting to me. And then on other side, create opportunities for things that… I produced The Forty-Year-Old Version.

Carmen: Yeah. I love The Forty-Year-Old Version. Straight up love it.

Lena: I helped finance. I helped produce. Does that get as much talk?

Carmen: I think it’s really interesting for you bring up something like Forty-Year-Old Version. And what I appreciate, again, going back to the breadth of your career is that, in such a short amount of time, there’s very few people who have been able to do what you’ve been able to do in terms of bringing so many of our stories to light… because even Forty-Year-Old Version has a queer subplot in it, and a delightful one at that.

Lena: Yes, I agree!

Carmen: I think what’s really been so fascinating, being able to follow your career, is the way in which you have built such a variety of content. And I respect the frustration of what it must feel like for that variety of content to then be flatlined.

Lena: But the weird thing is that it’s not.

Carmen: iiiiinteresting.

Lena: I cannot fix my face to look at you and tell you that my career has not been a successful one.

Carmen: No, it’s real successful.

Lena: And because of that, and you know, by looking at my career, I’m not a person who’s going to say, “Let me close the door and sit by myself.”

Anyone can look at Hillman Grad mentorship lab, they see Rising Voices, AT&T — But it’s interesting how — and I’m saying the media, and I don’t know if I’m talking about you — but I am talking about the press, and how it gets how it gets covered. How queer Black masc women are covered.

Carmen: And I think that’s a really important point.

Look… I can’t even make an fully accurate comparison. I was trying to think of a comparison of who else has gone through this door this way that we can look at and say, “We can learn from this person’s career.”

Even if I was like, “We’ve had other mainstream queer content creators, writers, producers who have made it this far.” Right? Sure. We’ve even had a few Black queer mainstream content producers, media makers who have made it this far. But when you start thinking about masc Black lesbian content producers, that list gets very small. Of course Cheryl Dunye, Dee Rees. But who’s traveled this road in such a short amount of time? When I remember the fact that you literally just won the Emmy for Master of None, what, four years ago?

I don’t want to minimize what came before. But if we think of that as like your rocket launcher moment, that’s like four years, right? It does make it really hard because, there is no other comparison.

Lena: And imagine being me! And I think for me, that’s why I think I am very mindful of sometimes, how am I being covered? Because I’m thinking about those young people that are looking, that are watching. Are they like, “oh that’s how she’s actually being treated? Fuck it, I’m going to sit over here.”

Carmen: And I mean, to bring it back to Twenties, that’s something that I know tangibly changed someone’s life. When I watch BET, when I watch not just Twenties, when you watch the after show, I’m watching B. Scott talk about what it means to be non-binary on BET… I’m like, “That is tangibly changing someone’s life right now.”

Lena: Yes.

Carmen: And I think some of what you’re asking is, what does it also mean to take those licks from within a community? Because we’re not always just talking about… since we’ve already kept it 100 in this interview, we’re not necessarily talking about, “There’s a lot of white people who have these very complicated and nuanced feelings about your career.”

A lot of times the people who have these nuanced feelings are Black people, are queer Black people.

And so what does that mean? I guess is what it really comes down to is… I have to imagine it’s hard to have created such a body of work, in such a really short amount of time, and then also have to deal with so many conversations that happen around you.

That just must be really hard.

Lena: Yeah.

Well, my hope is it’s worth it and just the price of the ticket.

Carmen: Real talk.

Lena: Here we are. I don’t have a choice. I’m not going to walk away. Not from nobody. And it can be disheartening, you know? Because you can see it. You can see it. You can look at the print, look at the covers, look at how —

Carmen: It’s a lot to hold.

Lena: Yeah. But I’m going to hold it.

Carmen: This also brings it back to Twenties. Everything we’ve talked about, this whole interview, in so many ways it does weigh on this one show on a Black network, you know what I mean? It does, it weighs right in this moment.

I think, when we think about Twenties, it’s a show that still really hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. Who is finding it? Who gets a chance to even talk about it?

Autostraddle still has a large white audience and I’ve had people write me and say “I can’t find BET. You’re writing about this show that I can’t find.” And I’ve had to physically direct them to BET, to Amazon or YouTube for purchase, the first season is also available on Showtime… I’m like, “You can get the it one way or the other.”

Lena: And the truth is, this is what I’ll say, if people don’t show up for the show, it will go away. So that needs to be your lead sentence. The truth is, because what will happen is… Say we don’t come back — and also, I’m already working. I got a little idea that I’m trying to figure out to keep this thing going for a while — but the truth is, if it were to go away, do you know how many motherfuckers would be devastated?

Like for real. And the thing is, that’s what it almost feels like that’s what they want. They don’t want Twenties to exist. I don’t even know who they is… I’m just saying like —

Carmen: They, the powers that be.

Lena: Yeah! And it’s like… what types of shows are covered. Are we just going to keep looking over there or point over there like, “There’s a gay person over there… [somewhere] in the cut.”

No. We can be centered.

Carmen: We don’t have to be a sidekick —

Lena: Twenties needs to be a phenomenon to make it. And… [sighs]… yeah, it needs to be a phenomenon.

It’s this thing where we focus our attention on as a queer community — focusing on we don’t like vs. supporting what we do like.

Carmen: And if I can just jump in here, I’m going to tell you this because I can take the hits, it’s my magazine. Again, going back to a largely white audience, I will tell you as someone who does the work of monitoring and seeing our clicks… I said this online a few weeks ago, I’ll say it now in this article, we know that if I put two Black characters in the lead title, in the lead picture, that is going to get an estimate of 2/3rds less clicks. Not a third, not half, two-thirds less people are going to look at that.

I’ve started to be more vocal about saying that, because people need to know that. And if we’re going to talk about not only what it takes to even get a show like Twenties created, then we also need to talk about what it takes to get that show supported. That has to be a part of the conversation.

Again, I’m speaking about this from my side of things. I work at a publication that does have a largely white audience, but is having an actively growing Black audience and we have been growing it intentionally for like two, three years now.

And I’m really proud of that growth. And I am so excited to see in my Twenties recaps, we have, it’s mostly Black people making Black jokes, being in community together. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to build that. We’re at a place right now where we finally have two Black editors on staff, and Shelli (our Culture Editor) is running a whole week that’s literally about strap on sex. Every image is of a Black person for the whole week. Today someone wrote in out of the blue, and they said “Carmen and Shelli, thank you. We see it.” And that was literally just today.

Lena: That’s amazing.

Carmen: Thank you. But also, at the same time, while we’re growing it, while we’re doing that work — I also face the reality of the fact that I have to write the Twenties recaps. 1) Because, I do love your work. I’m so excited to be writing about it. But 2) I can’t really justify paying someone else to write about it yet.

I mean, it’s a gift for me because I never get to write about Black shows this way, in such detail, as I do every week with Twenties, but two, it’s a reality where I’m like, “We have to get people to start showing up for our work.” You know what I mean?

Lena: Exactly. Exactly!!

Carmen: And that’s the reality of it, right?

Lena: And if there isn’t support, we will continue to not be in these universes, in theses spaces.

Carmen: Right. And I’m not really trying to go back to being the side character. I’m being real with you, I really am not.

Lena: How often do we have a queer Black person write about a queer Black character, played by a queer Black woman?

Carmen: Thank you!! That’s what I’ve been saying. How often does that happen?

Lena: And that happened because organically, I saw Jojo (Jonica Gibbs, Hattie, Twenties’ lead character) out there raising money for a web series. People maybe now know the story, but I donated and then got her on the phone. I asked, “What you trying to do?” Just really see where she was at. I wasn’t even expecting anything.

Carmen: I know we have to wrap up, thank you again! These are just two silly questions that I had written down and I will personally be mad at myself if I don’t ask.

Lena: Let’s go for it.

Carmen: Okay. The first one is, so obviously the name of your production company is Hillman Grad, and there’s your Hilman Grad mentorship lab. One thing that we share in common is that I always joke Debbie Allen is responsible for at least 50% of my personality. And I’ve always wondered what is your favorite episode of A Different World?

Lena: I have to give you more than one.

Carmen: Okay, please do!

Lena: Okay. “If I Should Die Before I Wake”

Carmen: [snaps] Yeeeees. Tisha Campbell.

Lena: Yes! Then “The Cat’s in the Cradle.”

Carmen: Yes.

Lena: And “Mammy Dearest.”

Carmen: “Mammy Dearest,” that’s a good one. I really appreciate that. The dance choreopoem at the end of “Mammy Dearest” is one of my favorites.

Carmen: Okay, so my second question is… I feel like people ask this of Black queer people all the time, but I could not find your answer to it, so I was interested: When was the first time you remember seeing yourself on screen? Where you saw a character and you were like, “That reminds me of me”?

Lena: Definitely Tasha on The L Word.

Carmen: That feels correct.

Lena: Yeah. And then as cheesy as it sometimes sounds, the next was when I saw myself on screen.

Carmen: I think you’re probably the only person who can get away with saying that and it not be cheesy.


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c-p

Editor-in-Chief Carmen Phillips is a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer with a PhD in American Studies from New York University. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 385 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. Carmen! Once again, thank you for creating and holding space to have conversations like this. This was such a thought-provoking (sometimes uncomfortable) read to me… it’s so neat to see where the format really shifts from interview to discussion back to interview.

  2. Because I don’t have words for how powerful the honesty of this interview was, I will show it in actions. I am now going to make a concerted effort to read the content on this site that isn’t necessarily here for me as a white personal, but could be hugely beneficial to my expanding worldview. Not to mention I want Autostraddle to have more writers of color and more talent like Carmen.

  3. Carmennnn, you should be proud of this interview. Asking hard questions and coming back from it to have real conversations is difficult and you navigated that beautifully. I really enjoyed the nuance and vulnerability from both of yall.

  4. Thank you for this really thoughtful and nuanced conversation, Carmen! I appreciate getting to read a frank and honest interview with the most arguably the most successful queer POC creator we have right now. Your questions were honest without being judgemental and it feels like Lena responded really well to that.

    I did want to say that her comment, “It’s this thing where we focus our attention on as a queer community — focusing on we don’t like vs. supporting what we do like,” really resonated with me. It may just be me, but I feel like we hold queer creators, especially successful, well-funded ones, to an almost deadly level of expectations. And the more popular the show, the most brutal we get in criticizing it.

    I totally hear people when they argue that there’s no way that we can get higher quality stuff if we don’t expect more. I also agree with people when they say calling out a show’s faults is not personally attacking the creators. But maybe I’m a little bit naive in thinking that perhaps we could also do more in celebrating and supporting the people making them? Because ultimately queer people telling queer stories is what I want to see more of?

  5. Thank you Carmen! It’s so rare to read an interview with a person from Hollywood that reaches this level of depth. I hope you get to follow up with her for her future projects or just to talk about these themes in general.

  6. All of my comments on this site of late have been super long so I’ll try to keep this short.

    I love the interview and I love what Lena is doing. The part of the interview where the discussion was on controversy had me thinking a lot. Macroscopically what she’s written/produced isn’t controversial at all from a storytelling standpoint; however, when it is delineated into gay, black, etc. it is controversial to a lot of people, and to me, that’s the distinction.

    Black films and tv shows in the 90s and early 2000s were a pretty good mix of fun and heavy-hitting but of late especially the last 10 years or more, it’s been almost all persecution/oppression all the time (aka persecution or oppression porn). For me, the only controversial thing Lena has done is Queen & Slim because it falls into that category. Twenties and Master of None buck that trend by giving a different and often first look into black life without black persecution/oppression being the primary or only focus and I love that not just for us (black and black gay people) but for everyone else out there who maybe saw us differently simply because of what has been shown in the past.

  7. This interview inspired me to finally watch Twenties, and now I’ve seen all of season 1 and the first 2 episodes of season 2 and I plan to finish the remaining available episodes this weekend. I will also check out the recaps!! Thank you, Carmen

  8. Of course I was always going to read any interview with Lena Waithe, but really appreciate how this got me to think re: clicks and websites…and was is the impetus does I needed to watch Twenties. I just finished the first season and love it so much! So, thank you Carmen.

  9. Also here because this interview (which was too good for me to even try to articulate) inspired me to watch Twenties. Just finished season 1, and I loved every minute. Thank you! Can’t wait to get into the recaps with season 2.

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