EXCLUSIVE: Lena Waithe on needing her haters and why her life right now is “Heaven”

(Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Lena Waithe just wrapped the first season of her hit show, The Chi, and she promises next season of the SHOWTIME series will be even better and blacker.

“I’m just grateful. You never know when you write something… You hope that it connects when you’re coming from a personal place like I was. I wanted to write about people I knew, the city and how I saw it. I’m not an apologist for the things that are happening in the city. I just want to show people there’s a real humanity there. People who are going to work, going to school, going to church, raising their kids. I don’t think the news cares to show that all the time. It’s not a jungle. Real people live here and I’m glad the people are rising up and saying, ‘yes.’ That means a lot to me,” she told TheGrio in an exclusive interview.

“Every week, the ratings continued to go up. They’re not only watching it, but they’re writing home about it. For folks to show up the way they have for us is phenomenal for me.”

The Chi has garnered tons of praise as well as some criticism, particularly about the development of the female characters on the show. Waithe insists that a new show runner and a more hands-on approach from her will combat some of those critiques when the series return next year.

The part Lena is playing in the current surge of #BlackExcellence in Hollywood is a source of pride for the Emmy-winning writer and she’s soaking up every minute. On Oscar night, she shared a group photo that featured other trailblazers like Kerry Washington, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Kravitz, Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Regina Hall, Sarah Jones, Rashidah Jones, Gabrielle Union, Angela Bassett, Dr. Ivara Esege, Chuck Lightning, Chimmamanda Ngozi, Marianne jean Baptiste, Mark Bradford  Tracee Ellis-Ross, Shonda Rhimes, DeRay Mckesson, and Janelle Monae.

Lena Waithe
Photo by Mark Seliger for Vanity Fair

“It’s heaven. Being a part of that photo is not lost on me. Not only am I here and working, but I’m a part of this. I paid my dues and continue to pay them, so I earned that spot in that chair next to Angela Bassett, holding Ava DuVernay’s hand, with Rashidah Jones at my back,” she said. “There are so many people who are part of this renaissance and it represents the time we’re in. There are so many artists the same age getting to do our own thing. It’s a full circle moment for me. My life is just like God’s dream.”

EXCLUSIVE: Lena Waithe on why her controversial movie ‘Step Sisters’ will remind you of Spike Lee’s School Daze

She also revealed the reason she continues to engage with fans on social media and beyond, even when they criticize her creations.

“It’s a relationship. I can make movies and TV shows all I want but if the audience isn’t there to witness it, talk about it, and take it in, then I’m just a tree falling in the forest that doesn’t make a sound. I need them. I can’t do this without them. I never want to take them for granted, even when they don’t like it,” she explains. “The people who are out here making art that people aren’t connecting to are the who are feeling like, ‘I made it. I’m good. I’m done talking to fans.’ I don’t ever want to do that. i cant always be guided by the people, sometimes I have to give them what they didn’t even know they needed.”

Waithe has consistently answered her critics on social media and encourages fans and foes to be honest about her art.

“When people say, ‘Lena, that ain’t it,’ I have to say ‘I hear you.’ When they like it, I say ‘OK great. Something in that sauce is working.’ Those who ignore the people are going to eventually get to the place where the people aren’t gonna be there for them. I never want to isolate myself. I get it. It’s exhausting and it takes a lot out of you but I would rather be in the mix, in the conversations and have real longevity than not,” she continues.

“The reaction people have when I respond to something mean is so surprising. They don’t expect me to answer them. If you fight fire with water, their tone changes. They’re surprised I’m responding, surprised I’m being respectful, and then a dialogue opens up.”

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