On Sept. 13, actress, producer, and screenwriter, Lena Waithe, gave a talk about her life, writing process, successes, and future endeavours as a queer, Black, female artist in Hollywood at Garrison Theater. Waithe was invited to speak as part of the Scripps Presents series through the Alexa Fullerton Hampton ’42 Fund. The discussion, moderated by producer and writer Amy Aniobi, was followed by a short Q&A session.
Waithe discussed a variety of topics from her childhood in Chicago to her writing process and throughout the talk, she left the audience in awe, with both her comedic wit as well as her honest experiences about moving up through Hollywood as an artist.
“Greatness is the third cousin removed of crazy,” Waithe said.
Crazy is not only word to describe the events that led to Waithe’s successes. It was a combination of crazy and determination that brought her to where she needed to be in order to tell her stories.
“Whenever I give advice to people, it’s like you have to be willing to give so much up. You have to be willing to walk such a long road.”
Upon graduating from Columbia College Chicago, Waithe proudly transferred her job at Blockbuster from Chicago to Los Angeles, wanting to be close to the industry in any shape or form. At one point, she was interning from 9 am to 5 pm at a production company and transcribing tapes for Real World Australia from 6 pm to 3 am.
“Something good has got to come out of this shit,” Waithe said, explaining her motivations.
Waithe’s writing is phenomenal because it is singularly her. No one can duplicate her stories or her process. Being who she is, unapologetically, is how she continues to create content. As a creative writer myself, I could not help but be amazed by her willingness to embrace everything that came with the process.
Acting was not part of her plan initially, but being honest about herself and being available for opportunities that others believed she would excel at led to a reading with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, and resulted in the role of Denise in the Netflix series Master of None.
However, Waithe’s greatest achievement is not her acting experience, her Emmy Award winning writing, or her fame: it’s her drive and perspective.
“I wanna get out every story, every character, every moment of truth, every piece of honesty that’s in my soul out before I go,” she said in response to a Scripps student’s question about the financial trappings of the industry.
To her core, Waithe remains a storyteller, and one with the understanding that after the flashing lights and the Hollywood glamour fades, her stories are what will hopefully remain.
“People remembering your name is ego more than anything else,” Waithe said. “I’m aware that when I die, I’m going to get two seconds. I try to remember why I’m doing it, and it’s not to gather a bunch of awards. It’s not about that. It’s about leaving behind a feeling. I’ve learned that for me personally, my legacy is my fiancée, it’s the children we’ll hopefully have, it’s the memories that we’ll share.”
Waithe is building her own legacy, one which includes stories of her America, of her experiences as a queer Black woman that many other writers, both like her and unlike her, will come to revere. And she is building it in such a way that it is irreplaceable and irreplicable. Her commitment and strength to herself within the tumultuous industry of Tinseltown is a quality that everyone, not just those in the movie industry, should strive to emulate.
“My memory will last longer in [my fiancée’s] spirit than the two seconds on the Oscar’s thing. So yes, my mission is to be the one of the best that ever fucking did it, because that’s who I’m trying to be.”
At the end of the day, Waithe stands by the singular belief that she was put on this earth to write stories that make other people feel, legacy or not.