Lena Waithe will be honored with the Trailblazer Award at Monday’s 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards hosted by Tiffany Haddish. The award, which recognizes game-changing creators with fresh and fearless voices in entertainment, is being given to Waithe for her groundbreaking contributions on and off the screen. “It is amazing, it really is,” Waithe said in a phone interview, adding how grateful she is for the honor.
The 34-year-old Chicago-born writer, producer and actor made history last year as the first woman of color to win an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series” for her work on the “Thanksgiving” episode of the Netflix hit Master of None. Waithe, who recently starred in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, also serves as writer, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s The Chi, a powerful coming-of-age story that follows a fateful turn of events in the lives of interrelated characters in a community in the South Side of Chicago. The show immediately drew rave reviews and was quickly renewed for a second season. The Chi ranks as the best Showtime freshman season since Billions in 2016, averaging nearly 4.5 million weekly viewers across platforms and the series premiere episode has more than 1.8 million views on YouTube. She’s also writing and producing Twenties, a pilot that was recently picked up by TBS and loosely based on her turbulent twenties living in Los Angeles.
“Lena is shaking up Hollywood and breaking cultural boundaries through her innovative and authentic storytelling,” said Amy Doyle, General Manager MTV, VH1 and Logo. “Her unwavering passion for equality and inclusion make her the perfect recipient for this year’s Trailblazer Award.”
Though she’s overcome numerous obstacles to get where she is today, Waithe says more than anything, her young age has been the biggest challenge. “I’ve certainly had some really tough moments and I’ve felt alone. But, it’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is specific. In my case, my age has been my biggest obstacle. More than the fact that I’m a woman, black and gay, it’s been that I’m young.”
Being young in an industry with an established set of rules, she explains, is challenging on many levels. “There’s an element where people, say 20-plus years older than me, have talked down to me. They assume if you’re young you don’t know what you’re doing and that can become very frustrating.” She mentions successful colleagues that are also in her age group, such as Jordan Peele, 39, and says though they’re a bit of a younger breed, they’re making things happen. “We are smart, we are strategic and we are changing the game. I’ve been told ‘that’s not how things are done’ or ‘that won’t work’ but I feel we are in a transitional place,” she adds. “One of the obstacles I’ve faced has been getting people to see things differently.” Waithe has some words of wisdom for those striving to achieve their own goals and a solid work ethic is paramount.
Here Are Waithe’s 5 Tips For Overcoming Obstacles And Reaching Your Goals:
- Study Your Craft: Waithe not only studied writing in college, but she continued her education independently and read every book she could get her hands on that had to do with script writing because, as she says, there’s always a lesson to be learned. “I want people to pay attention to the craft. I was so obsessed with my craft. I remember I’d sit in my apartment because I had no money to go anywhere, and at the time, I was working at Blockbuster. I would rent every TV show and binge-watch from episode one all the way through and I would study them. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t know how to execute it, you’re not going to get anywhere. Your script will just end up in the pile of mediocre scripts that get thrown away. A good script is like a lottery ticket in this town. If the work is good, the town will find you.”
- Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help: “Everyone should ask for assistance.” Waithe says she’s often approached via social media by people wanting advice on how to get into the entertainment business and she mentors many. “If someone is hungry and they want to learn, this can be a great thing for us both. Sometimes it’s helping with errands, or reading scripts and doing coverage, and sometimes you’re working for free. People show up, or they don’t.”
- Try To Work For, Or Be Around, A person That Does For A Living What You Want To Do: This blends in with the above, but as a believer in paying it forward, Waithe stresses the importance of mentoring young, diverse writers and she does so through an initiative in partnership with The Black List. “This is a great way for someone that wants to be in this business to prove their work ethic. A lot of people raise their hands and want to help, but not everyone shows up the way they should. Who’s reliable? Who can I count on? You’d be surprised at how much fall-off we get. It’s my litmus test and how I’ve been able to find and hire great assistants.”
- Figure Out The Thing That Makes You Uniquely You And Wear It On Your Sleeve: “I embrace everything about me that makes me different,” says Waithe. “We all have problems, so embrace them as that’s what sets you apart from everyone else. I say go to a therapy session and figure out what your s**t is and write about it. I guarantee it’ll be like nothing else anyone else has written. Write something from your soul.” If you don’t know what that thing is that makes you unique, she says, you need to figure it out. “You have to do the work on yourself.”
- Ask Yourself: What’s The Ultimate Dream? Waithe’s advice is to ask yourself this question. And, she says, it’s imperative to remain focused, organized and to continuously work hard towards your goals. She stays organized by making a “To Do” list every single day. “It keeps you accountable,” she explains. Her preferred method is to use dry erase boards that she nails to the wall. “Write down your personal dreams and goals. List all the books you want to read and the classes you want to take. Include people to follow up with over email, etc. Seeing this up there every single day won’t let you forget it. This has been the key to my success because I never let anything slip through the cracks. Make sure that everything you do from here on out is a step towards that dream, and if it’s not, you are wasting your time.”
The MTV Movie & TV Awards aired Monday, June 18th at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT from the Barker Hangar in Los Angeles.
Forbes, June 14, 2018, Written by Dana Feldman,