Don’t recognize the name Lena Waithe? You will. Over the past three years, the 30-year-old television writer and Chicago native has penned the hit YouTube parody “Shit Black Girls Say,” co-created the webseries “Hello Cupid,” and landed a gig writing for the Fox drama Bones. She’s also shopping her pilot, “Twenties,” a cheeky, irreverent look at a wannabe-famous video blogger, which has earned Waithe a comparison to another Lena (Dunham).
But Waithe’s current claim to fame is as a producer of the comedy Dear White People, a biting satire on race relations set at a fictional Ivy League college. With its pointed exploration of what it means to be young and black in the Obama era (a perennially trendy topic), the film has garnered raves from The New York Times and comparisons to vintage Spike Lee. Chicago spoke with Waithe before the film hits Chicago theaters this Friday.
You were in town on Monday to premiere Dear White People at the Chicago International Film Festival with director Justin Simien. How was it?
It was amazing. It was the first time my mom had ever seen the film. We got some of our best questions at the Q&A; really thoughtful and provocative. It couldn’t have been nicer to have that movie in theaters in Chicago.
The movie is about a group of black students at an elite university navigating their identities in a predominantly white space. Do you relate to that experience?
I don’t think my experience was as tough as Justin’s but I was always in AP classes in high school and being a television writer means that I’m often one of only two black people in a room. So I understand what he’s going for when he’s talking about how black people behave based on who they’re around and how people are perceiving them. To me, [the movie] is not only about the college experience though. The college campus acts as a metaphor for the world at large.
How did you and Justin meet?
We met in a writers’ group [in LA] about five or six years ago. He was trying to figure out how to turn the movie into a TV show and I remember being drawn to the characters and into the world that he had created. I’m definitely the target demographic. I’m black; I have a college degree; I went to a PWI [predominantly white institution]. So the material moved me immediately and he and I became fast friends and then eventually, a couple of years down the line, I became one of the producers of the film.
How would you characterize your work?
Real, interesting characters that are human and flawed that are put in interesting situations and have to rise above it. I definitely like writing about female relationships and women of color too.
Why do you think independent and web-only TV seems so prolific right now?
I think people are tired of the same old thing. We’re happy to see the Kevin Harts, the Gabrielle Unions, the Taraji P. Hensons of the world, but we keep seeing them in everything. We have a new generation of stars, of writers, of actors, of producers and directors coming up. It’s unfortunate because I don’t see there being a great collaboration between those two generations, but we’re coming and we’ve got interesting material. It’s biting and it incorporates people from the LGBTQ community, and it’s smart and it’s fresh.