Lena Waithe Discusses the Difficulty of Losing Black Heroes in the #MeToo EraApril 1, 2019
With Bill Cosby going to prison for sexual assault in September, followed by documentaries on R. Kelly and Michael Jackson’s alleged criminal sexual behavior, the #MeToo movement hit the black community. It's led to countless conversations around the protection of abusive black men and how to contend with legacies that helped define black culture when they're now tied to those abusers. It's been a minefield to say the least.
Lena Waithe is giving language to that complicated, grueling experience with a Tuesday episode of her BET show Boomerang. Waithe, who is the executive producer on the series along with Halle Berry and co-wrote the episode, hopes the episode, titled “Us Too,” can serve as a commentary on the matter, and even compared it to the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None that she won an Emmy for during a phone conversation with VICE.
Waithe is an especially interesting figure to tackle the topic as an advocate of the #MeToo movement who has openly referenced The Cosby Show and its spin-off, A Different World, as inspirations in her career. She even named her production company the Hillman Grad Network after the fictional HBCU in A Different World. And when her Master of None co-star Aziz Ansari got caught up with his own allegation of sexual misconduct, she told Vanity Fair she hopes his story leads people to “educate ourselves about what consent is,” adding, “there are both men and women still trying to figure it out.”
Boomerang is a continuation of the original 1992 movie which starred Eddie Murphy as hot shot womanizing ad exec Marcus Graham, who gets a taste of his own medicine when his female boss Jaqueline turns out to be a player too. In Waithe’s “Us Too” episode, women who felt sexually harassed by Graham over 20 years ago come forward against Marcus, sending the mega-successful black-run ad agency he worked at into a tailspin. And his daughter, Simone (played by Tetona Jackson) has to contend with her father being accused of sexual harassment and the backlash resulting from that while working at the same office where this all went down.
The episode is chock full of dialogue between characters on both sides of the debate figuring out how to judge past behaviors and black legacies. This interrogation recreates the feeling of what it’s like to process the downfall of black heroes, whether they’re actual fathers like Graham or fatherly figures, like Cosby, who is brought into the discussion on the episode.
We caught up with Waithe to hear more about what she wanted to do with this episode, and why it was important to focus on the #MeToo movement's affect on the black community.
VICE: What do you hope people will take away from the episode?
Lena Waithe: Well, I’m a believer that an artist should never tell an audience what to take away from their work, so I don’t really have an answer to that. I think the episode poses a lot of questions and it’ll be up to the audience to figure out where they stand and how they feel. Because the truth about this issue is that it’s not black and white, especially when it comes to black people. And that’s really what I think comes out of the episode if anything.
How have you been thinking through the way you want to engage with the art that people like Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Michael Jackson created?
I think at the end of the day we as individuals have to figure that out for ourselves. It’s like a grieving process. Everybody grieves differently and has a different way of approaching things and handling things. For me, I’m like everybody else trying to figure out what the best way to deal with it is. Online a lot of information just resurfaced about Elvis Presley, that he met his wife when she was 14, and a lot of people had a fair argument about that, which is, ‘That’s not really being publicized.’ Woody Allen hasn’t been canceled. So I do think there’s another element to this conversation which is, ‘Who decides who gets canceled and whose legacy gets ripped away and who gets away scot free?’ It’s a very layered conversation.
And someone could argue that if we really went through every actor or director’s past there’s a skeleton in everybody’s closet—every skeleton isn’t created equal—but we as a society have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves: ‘How do we as a society expect our artists to be more moral than we are?’ I don’t know the answer, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’m curious about. I’m now an artist in the public eye, so do people expect me to behave a certain way because of the life that I live? I don’t know, it’s an interesting conversation. But there really are no right or wrong answers. It’s a case by case basis.
In the episode some of the characters were talking about how Bill Cosby was like a father figure in their house. Did that resonate with you personally? Where did that moment come from?
Well I think that’s about us, the writers, trying to speak for our community if we can. The truth is, for a lot of black people The Cosby Show wasn’t just a TV show, it was a hope. It was aspirational. For some people it did reflect their lives. But there were also middle class people and folks below the poverty line watching the show saying, 'I hope that can be my future someday.' It really represented a new way of looking at African American people. And I also am a firm believer that without the Huxtables you don’t get the Obamas. There’s a direct connection. So we can pretend that legacy doesn’t have an impact, but it did. Now we’re grappling with who he is as a man and all those different things.
Right, people are grappling with that as individuals and then also for you as someone in the TV world who has said The Cosby Show inspired you early in your career, and your production company nods to the spinoff A Different World. How do you think this affects you in your professional life?
It doesn’t really affect my professional life because I’m going to continue to work and make art. But I think a thing we all have to understand is that memories can’t be erased. This isn’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You have trademarks. There are things that inspired you and no matter who that person was that inspired you, you can’t take it away. You can’t erase the memory or the impact or the influence. That show is a big reason why I’m a working writer. I’m not going to stop writing. I’m not going to change the name of my production company. I think it’s all about honoring the art and grappling with the people behind it as best as one can.
Did you decide to make Marcus Graham the offender in the episode (Eddie Murphy’s character from the '92 Boomerang movie) because of things that didn’t age well in that movie?
Well the show does center around his daughter, and it’s also interesting that he has a daughter. But I think it’s, to me, really a statement about our heroes and the people that used to make us say, ‘Oh yeah that’s normal’ or ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Because at the time we didn’t know any better. I still think Boomerang is a great film, but when you look at it now you are kind of like, ‘Oh that’s not kosher.’ But it’s true that at the time no one thought anything of it. I don’t think that makes it better or right but I do know what’s important is to just address it now. And it’s not an attack on the character or Eddie [Murphy]. It’s more about, ‘this is what that movie feels like in 2019.’ It’s okay for us to not have known that wasn’t okay then. It’s just about rectifying that now.
As someone who has been in Hollywood for a long time, when did you start to realize that there was a sexual harassment epidemic?
I think it was always there. It’s like racism. It never goes away. It’s always there underneath everything. But also I think when you’re the oppressed it’s almost the norm and you get used to being oppressed. And then you wake up one day and go, ‘Hey I deserve better than this.’ I’m really grateful that Tarana Burke came through with the Me Too campaign to say that you’re not alone and we should stand together and do something about it. That’s what’s so exciting about the times in which we live, that now you can’t get away with [harassment]. Mind you, there are still some offices all over the world that are still behind the times, but the good news is that at least perpetrators know people are watching and that’s no longer okay. Because before you couldn’t say anything. We mention that in the episode. Bryson asks, ‘Why is this coming out now?’ And Crystal, I think beautifully, says, ‘Because now you can, now you must.’ I don’t think it’s necessarily about vendettas or people trying to get back at people, I just think now women have the freedom to speak up and not be punished for it.
This episode is very much about what the #MeToo movement is like within the black community. How do you feel like the movement’s been experienced differently in the community?
Well I mean I think there’s still the element in the black community that we don’t want to tear each other down. We as a community want to really hold each other up, even when we aren’t on our best behavior. And that’s just from other people tearing us down, we don’t want to tear each other down, at least not in public. That’s something particularly black women have had to get over, not wanting to tear down black men. But it doesn’t matter who he is, what color. Wrong is wrong. And we need to step up and do that. I think we’ve seen that happen in Bill Cosby’s case, in the case of R. Kelly. It’s about every woman having the right to speak up and not feel guilty because they’re speaking about someone of their same race or community because that is also a form of oppression. That’s something we as a community are working through but I think we’re working through it quite gracefully if I do say so myself.
As someone that’s been on primarily black sets in Hollywood and others as well, do you think there was anything different about those experiences when it came to the possibility for harassment or covering things up?
Well I think no set is immune to bad behavior, no race, no creed. There can be a bad apple in any batch. I think it’s more about paying attention because you can’t just have an all black set or all women set and assume everything is peachy. You have to check in with the crew and actors, from the PAs to the interns, ask how their experience is on this set, and then make sure that they know they’re in a safe space to tell the truth. Because, shit, a queer woman of color could be harassing someone.
There’s a beautiful episode of Better Things [an FX show about a Hollywood actress raising three kids] that I just recently watched where the main character [Sam Fox, played by Pamela Adlon, who also created the series] is an actress on a set that’s not run well, and one of the people she takes issue with is a woman on that set who has ostracized the other women and used her sexual prowess to get what she wants. I really appreciated that. It was a gutsy thing for Pamela Adlon to do because it would’ve been easy for the writers to make the guys the bad characters on set. I think people think that women or black people can’t be a certain way on set and that’s not true. We all have to be cognizant of certain behaviors. That’s a new page that we’re turning and being mindful of. It’s something we tackle in this episode “Us Too,” like with the fact that we do get into the preacher thing and say preachers haven’t always been on their best behavior. That’s a very taboo thing to say, but it’s also a truth that we know in private. So we really tried to leave no stone unturned in this episode and tried to make sure everyone’s opinion is out there.
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