Lena Waithe: Why Change in Hollywood Must Be Mandated, Not Requested (Guest Column)

Lena Waithe Power of Women
Joe Pugliese for Variety

Money is the only language that people in Hollywood understand. The only way we’ll see change in an industry that benefits from systems of inequality as they exist today is to hit people in their pockets.

We need mandates for inclusion. The studios, networks and streamers all need to live by new rules, and if they don’t live by them, there need to be financial repercussions. The studios need to greenlight a certain number of projects from Black people, brown people, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized communities. Hollywood is nothing if not a mirror of America.

We have to hit the sources of funding for this business. If your studio hasn’t greenlit enough projects brought in by underrepresented communities — everything gets shut down. You can’t go into production on anything. That’s how serious this situation is. I can sign all the petitions and go to all the meetings I want. But we need mandates.

We need new rules and a way to enforce them. If an NBA player goes against the rules on the court, they’re penalized. That’s what we need to say to the studios, networks and streamers: These are the rules. You abide by them or you get fined.

I have faith that this country can live up to its promise. Because anything is possible. There was once a time in this country when Black people were property. Four hundred years later a Black man becomes president of the United States. That took a long time, but it happened.

Nothing says more about who we are as a country than our last two presidents. We have a Black president for eight years, and then who follows him? Trump’s racist ass. Whenever Black people get too close to freedom, those in power start feeling oppressed.

For me to be sitting where I sit now as a Black queer woman in this industry is progress. But the reality is I’m one of very few. I don’t want people to look at me, Issa Rae or Donald Glover and say, “We’re good. We did it.”

I think some people look at the progress we’ve made and think there’s not much left to do. But what people have to understand is that for every Black show we have, there are a million white shows just like it.

There are way more shows about white angst than there are about Black life — normal, everyday Black life.

We are just now getting to a place where a show like [the Waithe-created comedy] “Twenties” can exist. TBS couldn’t do it. Hulu didn’t buy it. We’re on BET. A show on BET has never been nominated for an Emmy. You could argue that the content has not been there in the past, but the content has improved. Whether you’re Black or white, you can’t tell me that [the 2017 BET miniseries] “The New Edition Story” wasn’t Emmy-worthy. Maybe if it had been about the Beach Boys it would have gotten some love.

The trades, including Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, are also a part of the problem. When it comes to Emmy hopefuls or Oscar predictions, Black and brown people are often left off those lists. We’re never a part of the conversation or roundtables. And when we are there — there’s usually only one or two of us.

The irony is that the trades then write stories asking, “Why are these awards shows so white?” It’s because of the narrative you put out into the industry.

Change comes slowly or not at all. I think it’s going to take some time. But there was a point in time when America was segregated — that was the law of the land. My mother was born into that in 1953. It’s important to remind people that it was not that long ago. There were new civil rights laws written [in the mid-1960s] that allowed people to live differently. If there was no law and if integration was not enforced, it would probably still exist today. Just like MLK said: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor — it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Part of the attention being paid to racial justice in Hollywood in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is lip service, and part of it really does have good intentions. Unless we change the laws and change the rules of this industry and this country — history will continue to repeat itself again and again and again.

Lena Waithe is a writer, producer and actor.