Lena Waithe’s had a busy year so far. The Emmy-winning writer and TV producer has her name attached to several projects released in or slated for 2021: Amazon Prime’s horror anthology series Them, which she executive produced; a second season of the BET+ series Twenties, which she created; The Chi’s fourth season on Showtime; and a feature film, Beauty, which she wrote and is due out later this year.
Most surprising, though, is the return of Master of None, the Netflix comedy that won her a historic Emmy for writing one of its most profound episodes, a loosely autobiographical half-hour in which she also starred. In the third season, which arrives after a four-year hiatus on May 23, Waithe’s character Denise takes over as the protagonist, leaving co-creator Aziz Ansari behind the camera and his (former) lead, Dev, largely off-screen. Master of None’s future hung in the balance after Ansari left the public eye in 2018, when a writer called him out online for mistreating her on a date. The allegations came during one of the fiercest periods in the #MeToo movement, and Ansari ducked from view accordingly; it took him some time to come back to the stand-up stage where he found some of his greatest success, and like other comedians, he’s expressed some disdain for the “cancel culture” that impugned him. For Master of None’s truncated, possibly final outing, it’s all about Lena Waithe—her first big starring role, on the series that made her a household name in the first place.
Putting Waithe at the center of Master of None makes it fit more squarely into the rest of her oeuvre. Each of Waithe’s projects is notably and unapologetically Black, in that they feature predominantly Black casts and contend directly with race in America. In Master of None, Waithe’s character Denise struggles with her marriage to a British Black woman, played by Naomi Ackie; queerness is also a large part of Waithe’s work. The overt Blackness, as Waithe understands and portrays it, has become her calling card and defining aesthetic.
But that same authorial spirit has won her both awards and a whole lot of derision. As much as Waithe is celebrated—not just by the TV Academy and TV critics, but outlets and organizations like Essence, Out magazine, and the NAACP—she also has attracted criticism from the audiences she chooses to portray in her work. When news breaks that Waithe is producing a new project, one can expect that the backlash will be imminent. The problem, her critics say, is the content of her work: Even as she professes to represent the Black community that she belongs to, she perpetuates the traumatic narratives inherent in too much of Black-centric media. This is a fine line that many creators of content about painful experiences, whether it be drugs or death or brutal racism, must walk. But Waithe might walk it perhaps too much, and not well.
Of Waithe’s best-known works, several sit firmly in the camp of possibly exploitative, ill-considered Black trauma porn. Her first big feature script was Queen & Slim, a modern, Black twist on Bonnie and Clyde, released to largely positive reviews in 2019. If you’ve seen Bonnie and Clyde, you can predict how Queen & Slim ends: badly. But before you get to the leads’ unfortunate fates, you endure their journey as outlaws who accidentally kill a cop who has racially profiled them. This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative in American culture, let alone America itself. But the difference between the real-life narratives of Black deaths at the hands of racist cops and fiction inspired by those narratives is that fiction is, well, fiction—and Waithe chose to make her Black Lives Matter homage truer to life than Black audiences felt was appropriate. “I felt hopeless instead of inspired; deflated instead of uplifted; tired instead of woke,” wrote Jordan Ligons for the Ringer, in a piece about how Queen & Slim’s storytelling fails Black audiences. By dooming the Black leads to an awful fate, the film chose to retraumatize rather than reinvigorate an audience already ensconced in daily reminders of the difficulties of being Black in America.
Queen & Slim did receive some praise for efforts toward authenticity made by the Black, female creative team at the helm, including director Melina Matsoukas. As a one-off into the realm of crafting Black violence for entertainment, Queen & Slim could have been taken as an admirable misfire. But the movie premiered after the star of Waithe’s Showtime drama The Chi, Jason Mitchell, had become embroiled in on-set harassment allegations lodged by his co-star Tiffany Boone. Ayanna Floyd Davis, who was brought on as showrunner for the second season and left by its end, said Waithe was aware of the allegations and initially chose to keep Mitchell on. Floyd Davis said she left the show after becoming “a target of [Mitchell’s] rage” herself. In an interview on The Breakfast Club after the season wrapped, Waithe tried to absolve herself of blame for the behind-the-scenes problems. “I don’t regret making a Black woman a showrunner,” she said of Floyd Davis’ departure and the circumstances that led to it. “I do regret trusting her to handle it all by herself.”
As a public advocate of Time’s Up, Waithe raised red flags for Black viewers of her work by the way she handled The Chi’s misconduct allegations. Waithe not only reframed Floyd Davis’ departure from the show around her inability to ultimately resolve the issues with Mitchell, but also she focused more on how she tried to make Boone comfortable with a situation she expressed utmost discomfort in. Both interpretations leave other women to explain themselves in the face of the show’s contentious male lead’s wrongdoing. “When she had her own opportunity to ‘lead with transparency,’ she instead chose to sidestep, displacing as much blame as possible to another woman—who also endured harassment—while also subtly victim-blaming as justification for her failure to act in a truly productive manner,” the Root’s Shamira Ibrahim explained in June 2019.
Three makes a trend, and the third strike for Waithe was with Them. As executive producer on the Amazon series, she can only assume so much blame for its myriad issues—most notably a graphically violent, horrific scene in which one of the main characters is raped and her baby is killed in front of her. It’s a grotesque, long tangent in a show that otherwise mixed slight sci-fi elements with a story about regular ol’ American racism. Creator Little Marvin explained that this scene came to him in a dream, and expressed pride in recreating it for television; viewers and critics felt differently. Them’s disturbing use of violence goes beyond the boundaries of a horror show; it teeters into outright provocation of very real traumas for Black Americans, what with all the white people brutalizing Black people with meager narrative purpose beyond shock. Although Waithe simply served as executive producer here, her history with Queen & Slim and The Chi led the social media train to pin her as the reason Them traffics in such terrible imagery. Of course Lena Waithe, purveyor of failing to protect Black bodies on-screen and off, would be cool with having a Black character’s life ruined for being Black, and in such an unflinchingly awful way.
There are other, smaller inflammatory points in the Lena Waithe saga—like when she credited her writing voice to watching films by white directors instead of just Black ones; when she called out Denzel Washington and Will Smith for not doing enough to support Black work, despite evidence to the contrary; and even when she leaves performatively hyped, exhaustingly prolific comments on the live feed for Verzuz. (Seriously—she is all over that comments section, and it is A LOT.) As a Black female creative, I feel some discomfort about dinging a Black female creative, to be sure, especially when it’s someone like Waithe, who’s broken barriers and created some genuinely great stuff. But no level of solidarity should prevent a critic from taking issue with someone else’s work, especially when it can be as harmfully provocative and painful for the viewers who are suffering from the reality of the traumas she is drawing from.
Waithe herself has said that “being black is beautiful, but it’s also traumatizing.” But perhaps that shouldn’t also be a guiding principle of the work she associates herself with.