Lena Waithe’s Art of Protest

Lena Waithe doesn’t so much tell stories as spill them, like a tipped bucket on a steep driveway. Over breakfast last month in Chelsea, I asked for the one about how she got the idea for her first movie, the newly released drama “Queen & Slim,” and she delivered a spirited cascade that sprang from a single point of origin — a chance encounter with the writer James Frey — into tributaries tracing the history of black Hollywood, the myth of the lone genius and the four-year arc of her career. When Waithe began her answer, the waitress had just taken our orders. By the time I got to my second question, the food had arrived.

Waithe’s charisma and hyperactivity (in addition to writing “Queen,” which she produced along with the director Melina Matsoukas, she is the creator of Showtime’s “The Chi” and a BET project, “Twenties”) can make her seem inevitable. Her breakout role, as best friend to Aziz Ansari on Netflix’s “Master of None” (she won an Emmy for outstanding writing on the series) came by sheer force of personality: Ansari, who initially conceived the character as straight and white, met Waithe (gay, black) and rewrote it.

But “Queen & Slim” underscores just how unusual her rise has been. The film, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in a race to freedom after a doomed confrontation with a white police officer, is a rarity: an R-rated, studio-backed feature centered on two dark-skinned characters who are far from traditional heroes. It’s the kind of movie that would be difficult to imagine in a world without Waithe, which is to say, at any other time than now.

At breakfast, Waithe, who wore a tan coat with a shearling collar and black Nike Air Yeezy sneakers (“Old Kanye,” she clarified), switched easily between the roles of artist and agitator, framing the movie not just as a creative breakthrough but also as part of a push for structural change in Hollywood. As a black filmmaker, she said, to ignore the political realities of the day always seemed implausible.

“Everything a black person does is revolutionary because we weren’t supposed to survive,” she said. “Everything we do is political because they politicized our skin.”

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

You were saying that James Frey approached you with the initial idea for this movie at a party. What about it appealed to you?

The fact that no one had done it before. How weird is it that a white man thought it up? I was like, “We haven’t swapped that narrative yet?” I looked for it in the culture — didn’t see it. I’m like “I got to do it.” When people see the trailer, they’re like “Whoa,” because they’re so used to us being the ones who get killed.

Did the fact that he was a white man give you pause?

No, because I thought it was a good idea. He came up with that idea, but I wrote the movie. I freaked it. To me, if someone is saying “Here’s a seed,” I’m going to take it and grow a tree.

I think it must be hard to write movies that are inspired by contemporary tragedies like police violence; there’s so much in the news already and there aren’t really good resolutions available. Was it a challenge for you?

I don’t want this movie to be as relevant as it is. But the scary thing is the movie becomes more and more relevant with every passing day. The script is almost a result of my trauma. I’m a black person in the world watching TV like everybody else. The work that artists are doing right now, this is us trying to put a time stamp on the society in which we live. It is a violent one. It is a cold one, and yet we still are stylish and we still are funny and we still love and we still smoke weed and we still do crab boils. Even in the midst of this trauma, we survive, we live, and that, to me, is what the real meditation of this movie became.

Who are Queen and Slim to you?

Queen is a little bit of me. Little bit of Bryan Stevenson [the lawyer and activist], a little bit of my wife. She’s every woman on the bus stop I passed by. Slim can be very foreign to me, the way that his family is always at the forefront of his mind, the way that he’d rather fade into the background. But there’s some of me in him as well. I wanted to give them both a piece of all black people: religion, revolution, simplicity, complexity, family trauma, family unit.

The characters are sympathetic, but they don’t always do the right thing. And the movie doesn’t always make it clear what’s right and what’s wrong.

If it is, I’m not doing a good job. I don’t like movies that are that black and white. I don’t like movies that tell me what to think. Let me wrestle with that. I can’t tell someone what to take away from my art. That’s not my job.

It’s tricky, though, because at the same time, you obviously have a point of view.

I do. And I have to put myself in the work. I have to put my spirit, my soul, my body, my skin, my fingernails — that needs to be in it. But it’s not a good scene unless two people in it have conflicting points of view. It’s Writing 101. Depth. Complication. That’s how the world is.

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