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“I don’t have a black exec on the studio or network side, so there’s a level of trust that they kind of have to have for me,” Lena Waithe said about working on her Showtime series, The Chi, during The Hollywood Reporter’s Drama Showrunner Roundtable.
“Usually it’s predominantly white execs, or the poor token black exec they bring to the room, or whoever they can find in the office just to say, ‘Come on, we’ve got a black person coming in here. We want to look good,'” she said.
But even when there is a black executive in the room, it doesn’t always help a black writer’s cause when they are pitching, as Waithe continued, “You have to remember, that black exec can either be a friend or a foe, because they don’t want to come off like, ‘I’m only vying for the black show,’ they don’t want to be the black exec” or “if their black experience is different from yours.”
“The truth is, going in to pitch is hard, period,” Waithe told the roundtable. “But what I think what people don’t realize to someone who is othered,” noting it does not solely apply to black people but also trans people, people with disabilities, and more, “if you’re sitting with people who, that’s not their experience, oftentimes there’s a level of not understanding and not being able to relate. The story could be great and unique and specific, but they’re like, ‘We don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t know that world.'”
Waithe argued that it is difficult to be understood if you pitch anything that may be outside a top exec’s known world, adding, “or they say yes and then try to make it more relatable to them.” She noted, “Although, I love Big Little Lies, because I got to be a fly on a wall of a world that I’m not a part of.”
Speaking to her experience getting The Chi made, Waithe told the roundtable, “I’m very blessed in that the execs at Showtime and obviously Fox 21 said, ‘This may not be our experience, but there’s something about this that has a heartbeat that even we can’t deny.'”
Waithe advises writers who are “othered” that “you better come in there with something so phenomenal and so amazing that even though it’s from a world that isn’t theirs, there’s something about it they can connect to.”
“There has to be the universal law, where it’s a about a person just trying to survive or trying to live. And even if those people don’t look like them, or come from the same walk of life, they can still say, ‘I get it. I want to watch that.'”
Waithe has one career Emmy, for writing on Netflix’s Master of None, a win that made her the first black woman to win the Emmy in writing for a comedy a series.
The full Emmy roundtables air every Sunday on Sundance TV beginning June 24 and on THR.com the following Monday. The full Drama Showrunner Roundtable, with Lena Waithe, Bruce Miller, Peter Morgan, Dan Futterman, David Shore and Courtney Kemp, airs Sunday, July 15. Tune in to THR.com/roundtables for more discussions featuring talent from the year’s top shows.
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