Last week, the Weekly sat down with Lena Waithe, a writer, actress, and producer best known as the creator of the new Showtime series The Chi, set on the South Side, and for her Emmy Award–winning work on the Netflix show Master of None. Just two weeks ago, Waithe, a native South Sider, won the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Vanguard Award. Here, she talks about being a queer Black woman in the public eye and giving space for tragedy and beauty in stories about Chicago.
Erisa Apantaku: So, about The Chi—it speaks to the South Side of Chicago, gun violence, family dynamics, and I want to know, how did the series come about?
Honestly, it kinda came about by me being in my apartment and reading a lot of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and watching the news—Chicago was very much in the news three or four years ago when I wrote the pilot; it was just a combination of those things. I just realized we needed to tell our story, ’cause some people were telling it and getting it wrong. It was just really important to me to write that, and I don’t know if I really had a choice in the matter, and it was something I had to get out and people responded to it, so I was grateful for it.
Olivia Obineme: And what in The Chi did you think wasn’t being shown about Chicago or Black and brown people in other shows and films and media in general?
The biggest thing is humanity. There is an intimacy that our show has, a quietness to it: the way people interact with each other, particularly Black people. I don’t really see that a ton. And it’s just nice to show us in our intimate and quiet moments as well as our loud ones.
EA: Watching the show, I was actually reminded of the death of Xavier Joy, of Whitney Young. He was a grad, he played college football, he was an AmeriCorps volunteer, and he died in Woodlawn last summer. Stories like his seem to have a finite duration of airtime, but in The Chi, we see how one unfortunate situation can make an impact and have this ripple effect.
Yeah, absolutely, and that was something I wanted to show: people don’t just die, people keep going. Their families mourn them, their friends mourn them, and sometimes—it’s unfortunate—some people want to avenge their death. And everybody grieves differently, and I think I wanted to show how people grieve and how people react to death, particularly amongst Black men in Chicago. And also, it’s very traumatizing, and people act like we should just get used to it as part of our lives, and I don’t think that’s fair. I think that we as a people have found ways to cope, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the show: to show how people cope differently.
OO: The storyline itself definitely shows your perspective of Chicago. You were born and raised on the South Side. The characters, though—Papa, Jake, Ronnie—they are fictitious, so you definitely have creative freedom. We have been talking to a lot of native South Siders about the show and there’s been mixed feelings about location, location, location. What’s your say on that critique?
Well, there’s a little thing about TV that people don’t often know: we have a production office in Chicago. We had a live producer there, who was trying to save money by filming closer to the production office, which was on the West Side, so they were picking places there. But in season two you don’t have to worry about it ’cause I have a little bit more power and a little more clout, but also, too—no shade—some of the crew members were afraid of going to certain places on the South Side. So the good news is that now we’ve got me [and] another Black woman to run the show, so we’re gonna make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Ultimately, you know, I feel like we wanna get that right, but you know you hear that and you keep it moving.
But to me, I think at the end of the day, if you’re from Chicago, and you’re actually watching it, you don’t know the difference. We’re just trying to show people that Chicago ain’t a jungle. That’s our mission, and other people are starting to see that. There’s rougher spots than others, but what we’re trying to say is that actual people live all over, and every place is a place where kids are living and people are trying to go to church and get a decent meal, you know what I’m saying. We’re just trying to show you that Chicago is very human—whether you’re on the West Side or South Side.
Listen to an extended version of this interview that aired live on the March 6 episode of SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:
EA: You’re trying to portray Chicago in its truth in this show, so of course there’s the rougher aspects—the gun violence, the police corruption—but there’s also some humor that seeps in, especially with three boys, Kevin, Jake, and Papa.
I love writing kids, I think it’s kinda fun—you can put whatever you want in their mouth and say what they hear and try to act like they’re adults, so we have a lot of fun with those kids. Obviously those kids are Chicago boys, they’re Chicago natives, so we let them ad lib and play, and you know, what they represent is what little Black boys in Chicago are. They’re kids, but they also see a lot, they hear a lot, they know more than maybe they should, and they’re a little more grown-acting than kids in other cities, but other than this, [they’re] innocent, and they still don’t know everything. So it was a lot of fun to sort of let them goof on each other and talk about things they don’t know anything about. It allows my comedic voice to kind of run free because I am a comedy writer at heart, so it’s a cool thing with those things I get to have a lot of fun with those kids.
OO: That’s where that Emmy Award comes in, right?
You know, you hope. [laughs]
OO: Yeah, you hope. [laughing] But I think it also goes beyond that dialogue, you know, I think also the cinematography is, to me—I loved it, my favorite part of it was the aerial shot—and spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched it, shame on you—with Brandon and his cousin, on his cousin’s grass, and it’s just that brown skin complementing the green grass. There’s highs and lows that are in the dialogue but also in the cinematography. How important does that cinematography play with balancing the show out?
For us, we just wanted to be sophisticated. We’re artful as well, and I think Black folks aren’t used to seeing stuff with us in it that’s sophisticatedly shot—but I think Donald [Glover]’s doing a great job with that too on Atlanta. I think Insecure has some great cinematography too, Justin Simien is a beast with Dear White People. They really kill all of us with their shots. I think what they’re trying to do is, I think me too, myself, Justin, and Issa, and Donald, and we grew up on Spike Lee and John Singleton, and they’re sophisticated filmmakers as well. But we also grew up on PT Anderson, watching Spike Jonze stuff. Stanley Kubrick. Our influences are very varied. We want to show that in our work. I had a lot of really great directors. “Quaking Grass” was directed by a Black woman, Tanya Hamilton. It was dope. And so we really want these directors to fly and to try new things. A big thing for me is that I want to be honest. In terms of smoking weed, I was like, are we going further? And she’s like, this guy is growing it, and it’s a business. So I’m really grateful for the show for letting me [show that].
Look, I’m not going to shy away from stuff about us as a people, but then it’s about how can I go a little bit further and not try to sugarcoat stuff or show a bunch of rich Black folks to make us feel better, but to show how middle-class or working-class Black people have a hustle and learn how to get a bag and flip it a couple different ways and all that kind of stuff too. So I’m just grateful for the way she shot that and showed those guys relaxing in a way that sometimes Black folks relax, but also have a real conversation and doing it in a way that was really sort of pleasing to the audience.
EA: Similarly, I noticed a lot of brightly colored murals in the backgrounds of scenes, and there are these beautiful grey and brownstone houses. Was that a part of what you were trying to do, highlight these spaces of vibrance in Chicago?
Absolutely—I mean, look, this is Chicago from my lens. I think Chicago is vibrant; it is colorful. I think it is full of life. And I think that’s so interesting because it’s so unique to people. And they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I was expecting it to be grey and a little bit more moody and darker.” And I’ll tell them, that’s because that’s the way Chicago has been portrayed by people who aren’t from there. Again, I always say, I don’t mean to sugarcoat anything, I don’t wanna do that, I just want to show it in an honest light. There is some darkness in the city—I’m aware of that; I grew up there. But at the same time, I’m a product of the city. Why can you look at me and say that Chicago is all bad? How can you look at Chance and say that Chicago is all bad. How can you look at Kanye, at Jennifer Hudson? You know what I’m saying? Obama decided to start his political career there. Oprah found her voice there. Michael Jordan became a legend there. So it’s like, I think there’s this weird thing that people get caught up in the headlines and forget the brightness that comes out of the city too.
EA: When you shoot in the South Side neighborhoods, I know you’ve already touched on this, but are you involving the community in these productions? In other words, how can community members be involved?
Here’s the deal: we don’t have a choice. We can’t fly in production assistants. We can’t fly in, you know, grits. All our crew are people from the city.
Just ’cause it’s me, we have a very diverse crew, and we’re gonna try to be an even more diverse crew and all that kind of stuff in season two. In terms of the community, if they have a structured situation where we get interns from the city and people come shadow—if we organize it, because there are legal aspects to it (in case somebody gets hurt on set). It can’t be all willy-nilly, because a set is not a playground, and also there’s a set etiquette that not everyone knows—you can’t be talking, everybody has to be quiet.
I think that there’s an element of like, “we wanna come see, we wanna come watch,” but for me, I’m always about protocol. Also, when we have actors, when we have very sensitive scenes, we don’t want a bunch of people ogling while actors are trying to cry. These are all things that people don’t always understand about the show and the business. That’s why it’s our mission to teach folks and have one or two per day on set, that we can tell them that and show them, and inspire them to go take classes, or maybe save up some money and come out here and invest in their craft and what they wanna do. ’Cause it’s not easy. It does take time, and it takes asking questions, and there are policies to it, but I’m always willing to help whoever wants to learn. I’m really happy that we have a show based in Chicago and can portray the community and teach the community about the business and the protocol and what it actually means to work in production.
OO: And all that you’ve said is definitely a testament to one of the many of the reasons why you’re awarded the Essence Vanguard Award. You gave a powerful speech, and in that speech you urged other Black creatives in Hollywood to come out and not hide their sexuality. So how important is it not only needing representation in Hollywood, but also feeling comfortable to be one’s true self in this industry?
It’s always a personal journey. I can’t ever tell somebody how to live their life, and everybody’s path is different. But I do believe it is our responsibility, especially if you’re a person of color and you’re queer in any way, shape, or form, and you’re in the public eye, to be honest about that—because even if you say “I want to protect my privacy” and all that kind of stuff, you’re a person who could actually be helping someone. You could be a light, you could be an example of being successful, working, and being yourself.
Because the truth is that when you hide, you create a culture of hiding, and I always say, if you look at how many Black people there are in Hollywood, it’s a big number, right? And then look at how many out gay Black people there are in Hollywood, it’s extremely small. The numbers don’t add up. So, until they do, I’ll keep leading by example and showing that you can be successful, and be Black, be out and be in the industry. But I do think that there’s people who are still like, “But then I may not get that role,” or “I might not get that endorsement,” or “this person might treat me differently.” I think we have to rise above that and know the more of us that are out and proud and successful and working, the more these young kids who are looking at us will decide to be themselves, unapologetically and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The finale of season one of The Chi airs this Sunday