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Lena Waithe Insists on Irreverence

Her semi-autobiographical comedy, Twenties, is both about making it in Hollywood and about what makes good black art.

Courtesy of BET

When the pilot presentation for Twenties, a show about a group of twentysomething black women trying to make it in Hollywood, first appeared on YouTube in 2013, Lena Waithe wanted to make sure we all knew it was most definitely not a web series. Lest you forget, there was a blurb under each clip that read: “This is NOT a web series.” It was a strange disclaimer at a time when a new generation of black writers were finding success by posting their work online (Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl web series led to a deal with HBO; the concept trailer for Justin Simien’s Dear White People premiered on YouTube, and it eventually became a film and Netflix series). “There’s nothing wrong with a Web series,” Waithe later told Vogue, “but my thing was that for someone to say that Lena Dunham can have a show on HBO about her experiences and what it means to be a 20-something trying to figure out life, why does Lena Waithe have to have a Web series?”

Waithe has since found success on every platform. She became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix. She is the creator of the Showtime series The Chi, a drama about life on the south side of Chicago, Waithe’s hometown. She wrote the screenplay for Queen and Slim, the 2019 film about a black couple on the run after a fatal encounter with a police officer. Twenties, which scuttled between networks and streaming services in pre-production for years, is now finally getting its television debut on BET.

Lena Waithe has encountered many people, basically almost everyone who has interviewed her, who put a mic up to her face and ask what it means to be a queer black woman in Hollywood. Twenties can sometimes feel like a compendium of those interviews, reflecting Lena’s refreshing (and at times infuriating) answers on identity and black art: Waithe was panned last year for distinguishing herself from black creators who “only have black influences” in a press junket for Queen and Slim. Waithe made a similar statement in 2013, when expressing her frustration over Twenties not getting picked up sooner by a studio. “I’m an opinionated, shit-talking, snarky girl who owns a record player and isn’t only influenced by black culture … I think there’s a ton of black kids like that. We watch Downton Abbey.

Funnily enough, Twenties is at its best when it actually does focus on Waithe’s black influences, which is—fortunately—most of the time. Waithe may have broken through with her work on Master of None, but she got her start working under some of the most prolific black women writers and producers of the 2000s, writer-directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) and Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends), whose work was often dismissed as niche (black) and lowbrow (about women). Twenties, a semi-autobiographical series about that period in Waithe’s career, is something of an homage to these women. The show follows its three main characters as they struggle to make work they feel is faithful to black women’s realities (and fantasies) in a white-run industry. Much of the humor, though, comes from how quickly the show’s characters are willing to compromise those standards and how confused they are about them in the first place, resulting in a refreshingly irreverent show about something that too rarely gets the comedic treatment: representation.

Twenties revolves around three friends, Hattie (Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs), an aspiring comedy writer, Marie (Christina Elmore), an up-and-coming studio executive, and Nia (Gabrielle Graham), a yoga instructor trying to break into acting (and into guest-star rapper Big Sean’s pants). When we first meet Hattie, she’s being dropped off at home by her sometimes-girlfriend, Lorraine, only to find she has been evicted. Hattie’s things (including her vintage “Waiting to Exhale” T-shirt) are lying out on the street. Marie and Nia drive over to help move her out but quickly begin giving her a hard time: She needs to focus more on getting a steady job, they say, and less on Lorraine (who is not a lesbian). “Sexuality is fluid. It’s about preferences; you go through seasons,” Hattie insists. “But you’re always dating people in straight seasons,” Marie quips back.

Marie, who functions as a self-appointed life coach for her friends, mentions that Ida B. (Sophina Brown), a prominent black TV producer at her studio, is looking for an assistant, and she offers to help Hattie get an interview. Hattie, however, hates Ida B.’s latest hit show, My Bae. “I’m just glad it exists,” Marie tells her, “We need to support black shit.” Hattie, who has dragged them all to an outdoor screening of All About Eve (Waithe’s real-life favorite movie) pushes back: “No, we need to support good shit that happens to be black.”

All the same, Hattie goes on the interview, pretending to be a fan of My Bae, only to have Ida B. confront her with some of her old tweets. “My Bae,” Ida says, reading from Hattie’s Twitter account, “is the story of a strong black woman getting dickmatized by a hotep.” Hattie is mortified, but Ida B. appreciates her honesty, admitting the show could be better. Ida B. hires Hattie as a writers’ assistant on one of her other shows, Cocoa’s Butter. The title of the show makes it difficult for Hattie to name-drop: When she mentions it while trying to squeeze a favor out of someone in an L.A. office, the white woman on the phone simply replies, “I’m sorry—I have oily skin.” For someone as judgmental about Ida B.’s work as Hattie, we hardly ever see her writing scripts of her own, and she openly tells another director (right in front of Ida B.), “This is the kind of work I really want to be doing.” The action of that film, like Hattie’s script in progress, however, is not shown on screen, perhaps a suggestion that it’s one thing to clamor for better representation; it is quite another to actually imagine what that would mean for anyone but yourself.

We likewise see Marie and the people at her studio struggling to come up with a consensus about their upcoming black film and TV projects. When Marie approaches her boss at Monument Pictures, a white studio exec named Zach, about getting Misty Copeland to star in a film based on the life of Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina to dance with a major company, Zach tells her “I’m over the whole ‘first black’ thing.” However, he also wants her to work on a project called Rosa: Before the Bus, so who knows. Her co-worker, Ben, the only other black executive at Monument, scores points with Zach for agreeing to develop a film called Black Pussy. Ben is willing to make concessions to the studio bosses that Marie isn’t willing to, seemingly out of pride. However, Waithe is careful not to judge Ben, or even Black Pussy, too harshly. Maybe Marie is too entrenched in respectability politics, too “focused on finding black auteurs.” Ben reminds her of the successes of films like Who Brought the Potato Salad and Me and You, Your Mama and Your Cousin Too. Marie has to admit: “I liked that film.”

The critiques of black film and TV we see on screen in Twenties feel especially timely considering the controversy sparked by Waithe’s own Queen and Slim. When writers such as Angelica Jade Bastién (Vulture) and Clarkisha Kent (Wear Your Voice) delivered mixed reviews of the film, they faced severe backlash on social media. Kent called the film “Black Lives Matter fan fiction,” and Bastién thought that while it was visually stunning, Waithe’s script was lacking. “A film intent on exploring the layers of black love and black resistance in a world such as this can’t live on beauty alone,” Bastién wrote in her review, “It needs soul, grit, and complexity—traits the script sorely lacks.”

In an interview with WNYC’s The Takeaway, Bastién commented on the backlash she received in response to her review, saying, “There’s this fear of scarcity when it comes to black art; that if we don’t support everything that comes out, we’ll never see anything else, which I find very patronizing.” Waithe eventually sent out a tweet, acknowledging the debate, writing: “We haven’t overcome until we can have honest opinions about each other’s work in public. We don’t mind being a part of that shift. I’m sending love 2 every black critic whether you loved it or hated it.”

Likewise, Twenties never comes down hard one way or the other about what makes for good black art, but revels in showing people having the debate, never forgetting that, for young people trying to make it in Hollywood, sometimes even just being in the room to have that debate constitutes “making it.” When Nia waits in line to audition for a web series that has 87,000 subscribers on YouTube, the other actresses tell her that the script is bad, the “ain’t shit” director thinks he’s Spike Lee, and the roles all go to light-skinned girls. Nia asks what they’re all doing waiting in line, then. “We’re living the dream!” they laugh.