Emmy-winning writer and producer Lena Waithe on lifting up marginalised voices in Hollywood
Is there anything Lena Waithe can’t do? The screenwriter, producer, actor and activist is the creator of drama series , an advocate of Time’s Up, co-chair of the Committee of Black Writers at the Writers Guild, and one of the writers and stars of Netflix’s . In 2017, the latter’s second season episode, , based on Waithe’s own experience of coming out, made her the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Since then, she’s been developing new projects and promoting inclusivity in the industry, but this week, during a pit stop at London Fashion Week Men’s, she’s trying her hand at something completely different.
“I haven’t touched a sewing machine since highschool,” Waithe admits to in the cavernous interiors of Christopher Raeburn’s east London studio. She’s here to participate in the second instalment of Mercedes-Benz’s , an initiative that challenges industry insiders to learn something new in 24 hours.
Her chosen skill? Upcycling, with the help of Timberland creative director and London Fashion Week regular, Raeburn. “It felt like the right choice because there are so many people who aren’t financially able to buy more and more,” she explains. “Instead of always looking to consume, I think we should make more of what we already have. We all want to help the planet, too, and it’s great to do that through fashion.”
Taking apart a vintage Formula E racing suit, Waithe will create a bomber jacket that is one-of-a-kind and, as Raeburn points out, fireproof. “Because the material is designed for racing drivers,” he clarifies. “Just in case,” Waithe jokes. “I live pretty dangerously.”
Following her upcycling session, she sits down with to discuss the obligations of leadership, the future of Hollywood and the importance of making political statements on the red carpet.
On the power of statement-making fashion
“On the red carpet, there’s so much press and so many eyeballs on you that I feel like it’s my duty to wear something that reflects my beliefs. It’s a reflection of the designers’ beliefs too: for last year’s Met Gala, I wore a Carolina Herrera rainbow cape by Wes Gordon and this year I wore Pyer Moss. Those designers know how to use fashion as a weapon. I love that people are looking at what I wear, not just for the fashion statement but for the political statement as well. I want to keep that up but also keep it organic, because if you try too hard it can fall flat. So, when it’s a wonderful collaboration – like this one with Mercedes-Benz and Christopher Raeburn, which makes a statement about sustainability – I’m excited to do it.”
“As a queer woman writing about personal things, it can be difficult but also very therapeutic. I enjoy being specific and personal because I think that vulnerability makes people relate to me, even if my story is different from theirs. I’m always grateful when someone says they’re a fan. A lot of people have told me that watching the episode helped them come out or reminded them of their coming out. I’m honoured that my story is a vessel for other people’s.”
On celebrating Pride Month
“For me, Pride Month is about celebrating everyone in the queer community, for instance if you’re non-binary, asexual or intersex. There are people who are part of the queer community who are often overlooked or forgotten about. It’s easy for someone to look at me or Anderson Cooper and think that that’s the gay community, but in reality, it’s varied, there are a lot of different ways to identify and we have to celebrate everyone, not just the groups that might be easy to digest.”
On the responsibilities that come with leadership
“I don’t think labels like ‘trailblazer’ or ‘role model’ are things people put on themselves – they are labels that are thrust upon you. That can be fun, but it comes with its fair share of responsibilities. I think there’s a misconception that because you do the work that you do, that means you’re always going to make the right choices. That’s not true and it’s not fair either. Everybody deserves the freedom to fall down sometimes.”
On lifting up marginalised voices in Hollywood
“I think Time’s Up has made a huge difference. It’s an organisation full of people who have access, clout and big microphones that they’re using to help people. Plenty of artists are marginalised and have stories to tell, but we need more people on the inside who are fighting to get those stories heard. I’m trying to do more, too. Up next for me is , a film I’ve written and co-produced starring Daniel Kaluuya, which is about black love, survival and how unity will save us all. There’s also , a comedy series loosely based on my early twenties. It follows a queer woman of colour trying to be a TV writer in LA. It’s the first time an African-American gay woman will be the lead of a primetime TV show [in the US]. For that to come from me and my production company? I couldn’t be prouder.”
On her hopes for the 2020 presidential race
“Time’s Up is a big part of this, but we do live in a different world now compared to a few years ago, if you consider things like Brexit or Trump. In some ways, I think we’ve taken giant steps back and so we’re invigorated and trying to figure out how we can make the world better. When it comes to the 2020 race, I haven’t endorsed anyone yet, but there are many candidates I’m excited by – like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. I’m feeling hopeful about it. Of course, we can’t take anything for granted, but I have faith that as a country we will do better next time.”
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