Lena Waithe on the ‘many pressures’ of being a queer, Black woman

The multi-hyphenate talent has a lot in common with her "Master of None" character, Denise

In the four years since Lena Waithe made history as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None in 2017, we’ve seen quite a bit from the Chicago-bred creative. 

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Her Showtime series, The Chi, is in its fourth season and she made quite an impact when she wrote her first feature film, Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in 2019. She’s also executive produced TV series like Boomerang and created Twenties on BET. She also lent her name to titles like Them on Amazon Prime, all while continuing to pursue acting gigs in films like Ready Player One and Bad Hair. 

In the new season of Master of None: Moments in Love, viewers get to see Lena Waithe and her character, Denise, like they never have before. Waithe co-wrote the season with Aziz Ansari, but this time she stars in the five-episode offering alongside Naomi Ackie, who plays her wife, Alicia.

Amazon Studios' "Them" Drive-in Special Screening
Lena Waithe attends Amazon Studios’ “Them” Drive-in Special Screening on April 8, 2021 in Compton, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Amazon Studios’)

theGrio caught up with the muti-hyphenate talent to discuss her approach to this project and why it has taken so long to see a story like this being told onscreen.

Even though she has been a voice for the queer community since she burst onto the screen and even centered much of her work on representing the LGBTQ+ experience, Waithe has never seemed as vulnerable as an actor or as a writer as she does in the scenes she tackles this season. 

“To add visibility is just the bare minimum. What I really want for queer, Black stories specifically is for them to be imperfect; is for them to be human; and for them to be light, dark, sad and happy. All the things that relationships are, which are not foreign to straight relationships,” Waithe tells theGrio.

“We go through the same things. And also, sometimes we have hurdles that straight relationships don’t face. And so we also want to make sure that was clear as well,” she says. “I definitely stretched myself as an actor in ways that I never have before or never had to.”

For those who also follow Waithe’s personal life, it’s hard not to wonder how much of the story may have been inspired by her own short-lived marriage to Alana Mayo. Waithe assures us that she created much of this content years ago, and considering the series has been on a four-year hiatus, the math makes sense. 

“The thing about this season is, I wrote it like almost two or three years ago. We wrote it a while ago, so I hadn’t experienced a lot of the things I was writing.”

“Twenties” Premiere Event LA
Lena Waithe attends “Twenties” Premiere Event LA at Paramount Pictures on March 2, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for BET)

Even without being pulled from her own marriage, the resulting story is strikingly relatable and a bit voyeuristic, with both women bringing an authenticity that challenges assumptions about what Black, lesbian marriage looks like and illuminates the often unspoken hardships faced by queer couples. 

“Sometimes hospitals don’t have the right language to always use with couples when they’re coming in trying to conceive,” she explains. “There are a lot of things in this that I have not necessarily experienced or gone through, but I can absolutely relate to this as a human being and understanding what it’s like to be in your 30s, to be queer, to be Black.”

One of the issues explored in Moments in Love is just how far behind the medical system is when it comes to LGBTQ+ couples pursuing fertility treatments. To think that a lack of inclusive language in health insurance codes can stand between a lesbian couple getting their treatments covered the same way a straight couple can be is shocking and likely just the tip of the inequitable iceberg. 

“I hope that people will be educated and want to go do their own research in terms of how hospitals can be more inclusive and can change their language. I really would hope that that’s something that comes out of this,” she adds.

Waithe has experienced tons of success in her relatively short career, but it hasn’t all been rainbows and butterflies. She has found herself at the center of several controversies surrounding her projects and ones she’s attached to, has received criticism for some of her own work. 

“Having been born in the 80s, I did not get to be my queer self as a child, as an adolescent, even in college because I was still living with my mom,” Waithe said. “So it wasn’t until my twenties that I was able to really explore my sexuality and be more comfortable in it. And it wasn’t until my thirties that I had my first real significant relationship.” 

“Not to make any excuses for myself, but I’m starting at a deficit,” Waithe added. “I’m learning as I go. And I think that is something I really wanted to put into Denise in that I wasn’t afraid to make her not likable. I wasn’t afraid to make her a villain at times, because sometimes you are the villain in your own story. Sometimes you have to be before you can become a hero. And so and I think that’s what I really wanted to use.”

In that sense, Waithe and Denise are kindred spirits, indeed. 

“It was important for the character to grow up with me as well. I don’t want to just keep doing the same things and going to restaurants and being silly. Denise has grown up. She’s married in upstate New York. Now she’s got a book. And there’s so many pressures that come with being a queer, Black woman,” she says.

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“You’re talking to two communities that you have to be a credit to. I love what Hattie McDaniel said in her Oscars speech ‘I hope to always be a credit to my race.’ Not only am I sort of pressured with being a credit to my race, but also being a credit to the community. So that can be two things, but also at the same time, I also just want to be an artist. I also just want to fall down and be a human being, but I don’t have that luxury.”

Check out the full interview above.

Master of None: Moments in Love is streaming now on Netflix. 

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