Dear White People hit theatres nationwide last weekend, and I can’t think of anyone that has made a better case for this film, it’s talented cast, and it’s brilliant writing more than it’s producer Lena Waithe.
Waithe has produced and written for multiple hit series (Bones, The Real World, M. O. Diaries, Hello Cupid) and conceptualized media such as TWENTIES – a pilot presentation centered on a queer woman of color that speaks to the progressive and unapologetically vibrant Millennial generation. This socially conscious, humorous and dedicated producer’s hands-on involvement was one of the deciding factors for me in seeing this film. Waithe spoke with The Visibility Project about the industry and Dear White People‘s place within a landscape that has long-awaited change.
The ViP: GIVE ONE REASON PEOPLE NEED TO GO SEE DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.
LW: You’ll be talking about it…It’s unique, it’s fresh, it’s different. So, they should go see it just because they haven’t seen a movie like this in a long time.
The ViP: WHAT’S ONE THING YOU LEARNED THROUGH THE PROCESS OF MAKING DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
LW: That I can do anything. Never take no for an answer. The fact that we got this movie made, the fact that it’s coming out in theatres is a miracle. It’s also because we never gave up, we never took ‘no’ for an answer, and we always figured out a way to get it done.
The ViP: WHAT DOES IT MEAN AS A CREATIVE OF COLOR TO HAVE DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
LW: It just means that it opens up even more opportunities for me to tell stories, for me to help other people of color tell their stories. I know the same thing goes for Justin [Simien] and Angel Lopez [producer], all of us, the whole team. Any success this film has makes it easier for us to go out tell other stories.
We keep getting more of the same and the success of [Dear White People] and all of the excitement around it is kind of letting the industry know there’s a starving audience that really wants these stories that are original, that are complicated, that are fresh, and that show that the filmmaker put a lot of care and effort into the movie. That’s what it means to me and that’s what I’m hoping it will continue to mean.
LW: I’m a fan of creating if you respect the craft. I’m not a fan of [people] doing it just because you think, “Oh I can’t get any [roles]. I’m also a fan of a performer partnering or working with writers and creators. …actors don’t just hang out with actors. I want actors to start hanging out with writers, directors, and producers. If you look at our crew we’re a mix of writers, directors, actors, producers…all of [these].
Because if you just have a room full of actors and you’re trying to make a short film then you have to go out and find a director, you have to go out and find a writer. Or they’re going to say, “Well we’re just going to write this ourselves, we’re going to direct it ourselves.” But chances are it’s not going to turn out that great because that’s not what you do, that’s not what you studied.
So my thing is I want actors to start seeking out writers that they like. When they come across a short film that they really enjoy, Tweet that writer and say, “Hey, I’m an actor, I’d love to be involved and help out in any way I can on your next project.” Build a friendship and the next thing they do they’re going to be more inclined to cast you in it. I’m more of a fan of that.
The great thing about Ashley [Blaine Featherson], Nia [Jervier], and Courtney [Sauls] is that they’re really close friends with two writers, one of whom happens to be a writer/director. So when we do things – mind you they have to earn their keep – but we’re going to call them first, we’re going to think of them first.
I really want actors to stop thinking, “There’s nothing out there so let me do it myself.” There are a ton of writers out there trying to get stuff made and they need actors.
The ViP: WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR DWP?
LW: Yes, I want it to be a big success, but not necessarily for financial gain or for my own trajectory, but really because I think Black cinema is in trouble right now. What’s happening is [films have] the same cast, the same story, the same studio, they’re the same movies and there’s a reason why these movies are doing well and it’s because Black folks don’t have anything else to see. I want there to be competition. I’m not trying to take down the Will Packers, the Tyler Perrys of the world, but I want them to have competition.
We’re making movies that we really care about, the film and the characters; we spent time making them great for the audience. I’m tired of this whole McDonalds sort of movie. They’re McDonalds movies. They make them in a short period of time, put them out, and people will come out in droves. My thing is, no, people should demand more from their artists, from their cinema, from their nutrition.
You know there are different things—there’s a happy meal, then there’s a six-course meal that’s homemade. I want people to start craving that six-course, homemade meal that was made with love and care and attention, rather than that McDonalds meal that was thrown together and just happened to have your name on it.
They’re both going to feed you but you’re going to remember the meal—the six-course meal—years from now…We’re trying to give people the six-course meal.
The ViP: Got you. I mean, I think that part of it is we’re not used to seeing—we’re not used to having options, so we kind of take what we can get. Like, ‘oh, it’s Black, I’m here for it.’ What do you predict about the future of television and film based on that?
LW: I hear you. I mean, it goes back to that thing where if there are shows with Black people on it—this is the most diverse fall season I’ve seen in a long time. But to me, it’s not about that. I don’t [just] care if there are Black faces, I want it to be good. I want it to be flawless.
We are an audience that wants to see ourselves and we don’t just watch shit, we tune in. We tweet about it, we Facebook about it. They want our viewership. What I’m saying is if you want our viewership, then fucking get some good writers and make that shit good.
The ViP: WHAT’S BEEN YOUR GENERAL RESPONSE TO CRITICS & CRITICISM, ESPECIALLY NOTIONS OF REVERSE RACISM, ETC.
LW: We really don’t have one. We really don’t. Because, why respond? We put art out—now, if somebody has a very sophisticated look at the film and they’re like, ‘Hey, this is a really cool argument, I think this was left out’ or ‘Speaking as an African-American woman who is darker skinned, who’s been surrounded by white people all my life, here’s my take on Coco and here’s why I think you guys might have gotten it wrong.’ That, I’m open to.
The ViP: Got you. So, it’s safe to say that your response is to sort of ignore the foolishness and engage productively in the good conversation about it, right?
LW: Yeah, absolutely.
The ViP: What can you tell us about Twenties because obviously we’re over here feinding for it.
LW: I mean, here’s the thing. Twenties is going to find a home. It’s going to find a new home. And also, too, I think everything happens for a reason. So, for me, I kind of feel like I just want to do Twenties the right way…girls will come up to me, kind of like yourself, that are like, ‘Yo, this is my story, this is my shit, this shit needs to be out here in the world’ and I agree. So, it’s my job, as a content creator and as somebody that y’all feel like represents you or speaks to you or carries the baton, I’ve gotta make sure that we get it done and that we get it done right.
There are two [networks] interested. So, they’re looking at it. So, it’s like, I’m going to make it happen. I just don’t want to do it the wrong way. And that might even mean if [a network] offered me a bunch of money…I don’t care how much money a place offers me. If I get the sense that they don’t really get the show, but then try to change it fundamentally – I’m not going to do it. I’d rather just sort of live on that pilot presentation. Or we wait until I really blow up and can do it how I want to do it and I have clout. Because I’m not going to let somebody ruin this show, which I think has every right to be on the air.
People want to see themselves on TV. So, at the end of the day, it’s a little frustrating, but I know that everything happens for a reason and that Twenties is going to find a new home. And there are two places that are interested that are actually very interesting platforms, so you just have to stay tuned.
The ViP: And it’s crazy that you mentioned that—we were also talking about how some of these other networks might just be trying to get some color on their network, whatever they can get as quickly as possible and maybe that started around Sleepy Hollow because it was a huge deal that Sleepy Hollow’s cast is so diverse. So, it’s very interesting that you say that.
LW: Yeah. This is another reason why I say I want Dear White People to do well because we work in the industry of copycats. So, if Dear White People does well, all the other studios will go—I mean, here’s the deal. We can do really well because, like Bridesmaids did well and you saw eighteen other Bridesmaids-adjacent movies. There was a movie called Bachelorette. That was basically Bridesmaids, I mean give me a break. And everybody at the studio wanted their Bridesmaids, they all wanted a female-centered comedy. It was ridiculous. But before that, no one was making movies with a bunch of funny women, but you show it can be done right and it’s a hit, all of a sudden, everybody wants in. So, I think with Dear White People, when it comes to us—we’ve heard this story before—that when our movies do well, it’s a fluke. But then again, we’ve gotten more of the same. Look at Baggage Claim, Ride Along, Think Like a Man, Think Like a Man 2. They’re all the same movies.
The ViP: Anything with Kevin Hart.
LW: It’s the same movie, same script. There’s no difference, they just change the title. And then Black folks go out and see it. So, at the end of the day, for me, I’m hoping that if Dear White People will do well, studios will just turn up and say ‘we want our black arthouse film.’ You know, that’s what we’re hoping.
It’s unfortunate because I feel like we don’t get that same treatment. If our movie does well, it’s like ‘well, that’s a fluke, that will never happen again.’ Or the [suspect] part is, our movies don’t do very well. Like Pariah or Middle of Nowhere, you know? Those movies don’t do [major numbers at] the box office. And it’s frustrating as hell and then people wonder why they keep getting shitty ass Black movies because, like Justin said…we get what we pay for. If we keep paying for …Addicted or No Good Deed, you’re going to keep getting that. And you can’t complain about the movies not being well made or other movies being boring or [that] you’re tired of seeing the same old actors. Well, there’s a formula. And they’re going to keep following it. (laughs) I mean, Will Packer said, “I have three number one movies this year.” He said it proudly. I kind of looked at him with a side-eye because yeah, but they’re all the same. It ain’t like you put any real effort into them. Right? Make really dope movies in a year, and then I’ll shake your hand.
The ViP: Just before we wrap up here, besides working to get Twenties a new home,what’s next for you? What are you working on? I know you’re doing Ladylike.
LW: A big thing right now, Bros Before Hos has found a home. We can’t say where, but we landed somewhere.
The ViP: Nice.
LW: So, there’s a deal in place for that. Um, Chiraq, which is an hour-long drama I wrote—Aaron Kaplan is attached to that as a producer. We’re trying to figure out where that could live or if somebody’s going to be interested in that. And again, it’s a drama about gun violence on the Southside of Chicago. So, we’re talking about that. Also, I just wrapped up my stint at Bones.
Ladylike is coming. I’m going to see [co-writer, director] Tiffany [Johnson] this weekend and we’re going to talk, but I’m super, super proud of her. She’s awesome. I mean, I was on set last weekend and it looks great. And then, you know, myself and Issa Rae and Denise Davis…we all have initiatives—we want to help writers of color get their stories told…minorities in general. And we’re getting together to talk about how we can help those writers and how we can kind of make sure our initiatives are helping each other and that’s going to be a big thing. It’s going to be a lot more of a partnership, a lot more involvement. And what I’m doing with Issa and vice versa—we just really want to help each other and then that’s what the [it’s] all about. It’s about making sure the work is great and making sure people are getting exposure that they deserve and just trying to get more writers of color in the business. Because it’s been the same people for so long and there are a lot of these voices out there. What I’m trying to do, what Justin’s trying to do, Issa’s trying to do—we kind of find them and we try to help make them better and get them to do really great and then hopefully get them working in the system and get them jobs that get them out here because we’re tired of the same old, same old.
Another way to get the same old, same old people to really kind of step their game up is to show them that we’re out here working hard, that we’re pushing, and we’re doing really great work and interesting work and you know, I think Dear White People is going to be a rude awakening. I think those filmmakers that we talked about that are doing movies that are sort of like McDonalds movies, they’re going to look up and go, ‘oh shit.’
And we gotta keep making content and keep doing work that’s good, interesting, and complex. And it’s not easy. And we can’t make it in a month. You know, our movies take time, we want to get them out there, we want to give something to chew on and something to talk about and something to think about. That’s what our audience deserves and that’s what true art is supposed to be.
The ViP: You’re like a unicorn. Basically. And then I’m discovering—and I say that because you’re really the first person that I’ve met who’s doing work at this caliber but is also working at the very same level to create access for others and just in working with Issa in the past couple of weeks, I realize she’s basically—her and Deniese—are really unicorns as well, and that’s probably one of the things that I admire most.
Lena Waithe’s perspective on the industry and Black cinema is one shared by the cast and crew of Dear White People. This film’s original vision was brought to life with the audience in mind – an audience overdue for fresh storylines and new points of view – and it’s one of several reasons why you need to go see the film in theatres. Visit dearwhitepeople.com/tickets to find a showing in your city today.
Interview with Lena Waithe conducted by KAMMs.