Last month writing in Variety, Lena Waithe proposed an idea for tackling Hollywood’s persistent lack of diversity.
If companies are serious about real change, then there should be financial penalties for projects (or entire networks and studios) that fall short. “Money is the only language people in Hollywood understand,” Waithe wrote.
I asked her to expand upon some of those thoughts when we talked earlier this week. Just minutes after we hung up, CBS announced that it was earmarking at least 25% of future script development budgets to “projects created or co-created by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).”
CBS said it is also setting a target for writers’ rooms to be staffed with a minimum 40% BIPOC representation for the 2021-2022 season and 50% the following season.
With Waithe’s idea in mind, I was curious how (or even if) CBS plans to hold showrunners accountable. So I asked the network: Will there be fines? The answer was neither a yes or a no — but an assurance that these goals are attainable. Which indeed, they are.
The vast majority of showrunners working are white men, still. Whether they will be sufficiently motivated to meet these new goals at CBS is an open question.
I talked with Waithe about some of these challenges, as well as her thoughts on the current season of Showtime’s “The Chi.”
Though Waithe is the show’s creator, she has never been the showrunner (each of the three seasons has had a new showrunner) and she revealed that only this year — for the first time — are we seeing her vision for the show on screen. That wasn’t the case the first two seasons, she said.
The following conversation was edited for length.
Q: Last week you appeared on the show for the first time, playing a mayoral candidate in Chicago. When you and I talked a couple years ago, you were clear that you didn’t want to act on the show. What changed?
A: I was adamant about not wanting to be on the show. I just didn’t want that. I really wanted people to respect me as a writer.
The truth is, the first two seasons — and look, I know people love those seasons — but I know you guys had some issues with those seasons. As did I.
I was a young show creator and I had very little say with what happened in Season 1 and it was really frustrating. (A white man, Elwood Reid, was the showrunner.)
And Season 2, I had stepped away because I was no longer exclusive to the show. (A Black woman, Ayanna Floyd Davis, was showrunner.)
Q: Why were you no longer exclusive?
A: Well, it was a rocky first season. And then Season 2, it was the network basically saying, “You can go do other things,” because it was a tug of war about how this show should be and what the voice should be.
Non-exclusive is a very Hollywood term. What’s the best way to put it? At Amazon (where she signed an overall deal last year) I am exclusive to them for TV, meaning I can’t do any new TV projects anywhere else because I’m exclusive to them.
So technically Season 1 for “The Chi,” I was exclusive to Showtime. I couldn’t go do or sell any other things. And Season 2 they were like, “Now you’re not exclusive for the rest of the series. You can do and do whatever you want.” And it just so happened that my career kind of took off and I was like, this is great — I got “Twenties” to happen (at BET), I wrote “Queen & Slim” during that time, I was doing all these other things.
And Season 2 on “The Chi,” there was another showrunner there who had ideas and that’s where Det. Toussaint came in and the gentrification storyline — those weren’t things I was spearheading. I had to allow the showrunner to do her thing.
So it was always frustrating to read reviews or see people (audiences) frustrated with things, because I would literally — and the writers — read your stuff and go, “Agreed, you’re right. That isn’t working.” And a lot of people don’t know that. A lot of people think, oh you make all the decisions, you created it. And that’s not how TV works. It’s a very collaborative thing. And when you’re a young new show creator you don’t really have a lot of say.
It’s a thing I’ve tried to be transparent about because so many people go, “I can’t wait to be Lena, I can’t wait to be Shonda (Rhimes).” And I’m like, yeah — but we have to figure out how to take ownership of these shows and this is the first season where I’ve finally able to do that.
So for Season 3, we had another change in showrunner and this time it’s a writer who has been there since Day 1 — Justin Hillian (a Black man) — because I wanted to see what it would look like to have a showrunner that really felt like my partner. So we’ve found this beautiful groove. Justin’s take is: “Yes, I’m the showrunner. But Lena, this is your show.”
Q: Let me take you back to the original question: How did you change your mind about appearing on the show?
A: When Season 3 came along, there were a lot of changes. (Star Jason Mitchell, who played Brandon, was fired because of allegations of inappropriate behavior off camera.) So I was inspired by the fact that Chicago has its first Black lesbian person in a leadership role (Mayor Lori Lightfoot) and I thought the character could be a little polarizing: It’s great, she’s gay, she’s Black, isn’t that a huge deal? But then someone can also go, “But that doesn’t mean she’s a superhero.” And it just made sense.
Also, how do you have me — and have this thing happen in Chicago (Lightfoot’s election) — and not play into that? It’s like a wink at the city. And it does show that the city is very progressive in a way, but then also you have to acknowledge that no one is perfect.
Q: The “Chicago way” of politics is evident in the character you’re playing.
A: Exactly. All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. Or just because a person is queer doesn’t absolve them of their biases. We’re not making a commentary on Lori Lightfoot. But I had this epiphany literally when I was driving in to pitch the season: What if I’m running for mayor?
Q: Do you think there will be another season? Do you want there to be another season?
A: I do think there will be another season. And there will be some Chicago people — I’m not going to say who — but known Chicagoans who have hit me, like, “What do I have to do to be on the show?”
Q: Let’s talk about your column for Variety and the idea of financial penalties for people or entities that can’t seem to make diversity happen.
A: I got a lot of positive response to that and I’ve heard from a lot of industry insiders saying, “This is how it could work.” And obviously it would take some time and infrastructure. But it was very exciting to me that people said, “Lena, this is not a pipe dream. This is actually a possibility.” And I’m willing to be patient, because I’d much rather leave the business in a better shape than how I found it. Because it is broken at the root.
But in terms of penalties, I would take it a step further and say if you don’t have a diverse writers’ room or crew, we cut your budget in half. You’ve got to make these showrunners uncomfortable and it’s all about money. That’s all that people understand. And showrunners need all the money they can get; the budgets are never big enough. So if a studio said, “You will have a smaller budget if you don’t want to be inclusive,” that would have an effect. The tough thing is that somebody could argue if people really don’t want to be inclusive, they’ll tighten their belt. But then the quality of your show suffers.
I’m not trying to punish people. But nobody wants to throw money away. So I think the fines need to be substantial. Or if you really want to go hard, have it come out of the showrunner’s pay. Then they’ll really be like, “Fine, I’ll be inclusive.”
All you have to do is go look at the pictures of Black kids walking into white schools (when they were first integrated); it was not welcomed. They were not being celebrated as they crossed the threshold. And I know it’s hard for people to look at Hollywood in that way, but it’s the same thing: We have to force these writers’ rooms to be integrated.
And the truth is, inclusive writers’ rooms make better content. Period. And I get it, people want to be comfortable and nothing makes a white male showrunner more uncomfortable than a roomful of people that don’t look like him — but that’s where we are ladies and gentlemen.
I do want to be very clear: There are a lot of people in this business who are allies, that are waking up, who are saying, “Hey, I want to do things differently.” So I have a lot of hope for the future.
But at the same time, there’s still a huge majority of people in this town who are like, “Uh-uh, I like the way things are, I don’t want to change (anything).” And those folks, I’m not going to wait for them to change their minds.
We as an industry need to demand that they do better.
(Article written by Nina Metz)