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Lena Waithe and the Obligations of Leadership

This has been a teachable moment for Waithe but I regret greatly that Tiffany Boone and Ayanna Floyd’s bodies, minds and safety were the sites for her lessons.

This article has been re-published with permission from DanielleDash.com and the original can be found here.

I came out to my mum in an Ikea car park, she said “thought so” then we went shopping. There was none of the poetry or conflict of Lena Waithe’s Primetime Emmy Award Winning Thanksgiving episode of Master of None. Waithe was the first African American woman to win the honour for her writing on a second season episode of the Aziz Ansari Netflix series that remains as affecting today as when it was first released. I know this cos I just watched it again and I laughed out loud and cried just as I did when I first watched it.

Lena Waithe’s star has been steadily on the rise as a writer, actress and executive producer. Her identities as a hyper-visible, black, queer woman in Hollywood have made her a leader in the fight for representation on both small and silver screens. Waithe’s position isn’t something that she stumbled and fell into— she’s paid her dues and earned her spot. Studying television writing and producing at Columbia College Chicago before moving to Los Angeles and eventually working as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s assistant on Girlfriends, Waithe has had a front-row seat to the mechanisms of power in Hollywood for over a decade.

As #MeToo unfurled, exposing sexual abusers in Hollywood, Lena Waithe lent her voice and her considerable platform to the movement and became part of the Time’s Up campaign aimed at ending sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. Before the premiere of her series The Chi, Waithe spoke at length to Vox about her role in Time’s Up and was unambiguous about her goals for the campaign “The playing field will be levelled and that’s my mission…”  Later in 2018 during a Hollywood Reporter showrunner roundtable, Waithe again made her position clear “for season two, we’re making sure that women feel safe on the set and we’re hyper aware of what that means because there are sex scenes. We want to make sure we’re talking to these actresses and also talking to our male actors and making sure they’re aware. ‘Cause I don’t play. I’m like, “It’s the city of Chicago, people die every day, so if you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I’ll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”

And here I am, a young TV exec myself, with few older black British women working in my field to give me an example of how to move through this industry in a way that is beneficial for me and the other marginalised voices I’m working to make space for at the table. So I see Issa Rae, Courtney Kemp, Shonda Rhimes, Yvette Lee Bowser and Lena Waithe (to name a few) and I study them. British and American television infrastructures are so very different but good leadership is universal and I want to count myself among that number. I hear Waithe’s comments, read her interviews and this is a black queer woman navigating this highly political industry without compromising and I aspire to be like her.

The penultimate episode of season one of BET’s Boomerang, a television adaptation of the 90s seminal classic film starring Eddie Murphy, centers around the fallout from sexual misconduct allegations against Simone’s father Marcus Graham. The episode, co-written by series executive producer Lena Waithe, is a beautifully composed and powerful 19 minute tour through the varying complex perspectives of black millennials in this post-#MeToo era. Lena Waithe is doing what she said she would; leveling the playing field… and then…

On May 21st, Vibe.com reported Tiffany Boone, a lead actress starring in Lena Waithe’s Showtime series The Chi, was “being publicly shamed after accusing her co-star, Jason Mitchell, of sexual harassment.” This followed reports by Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline that Jason Mitchell had been fired from an upcoming Netflix film, dropped by his agent, management and eventually from The Chi. As the knotted mess detangled I waited because I knew my glorious, illustrious leader, Lena Waithe was going to come forward and issue a statement clearing everything up. Tiffany Boone needed protection and who’d be a better source of protection than the creator of the show she’d starred in for two seasons; vocal Time’s Up activist Lena Waithe? You know how your heart and stomach become one and clench tight when something is wrong? Yeah, everything inside me tightened a little bit with every passing day and every time a new piece of information emerged detailing how we ended up throwing Jason Mitchell in the bin; an actor Waithe described as “the black Tom Hanks.”

For 8 days following the reports, Lena Waithe maintained her silence around Tiffany Boone’s departure from The Chi and Jason Mitchell’s firing. On May 28th, Waithe finally released a statement “I think Tiffany is a wonderful actress and an extremely brave woman. I wish her nothing but success in the future. I look forward to getting back to work on season three.” The vice around my heart tightened and I scoured the internet searching desperately for something to refute this report. Surely they mean Lena Dunham said that because it was so flippant, almost cruel in its breezy tone I couldn’t believe the same black woman who wrote with such soaring interiority about homophobia in the black family would be so glib. Tiffany Boone, a young black woman experienced sexual harassment on set that made her so uncomfortable her fiancé had to be on set on days when she and Jason Mitchell had scenes together and Lena Dunham’s- sorry Waithe’s main concern is getting back to work on season three?

We must not ignore the reality of what’s taken place here. Tiffany Boone was sexually harassed by Jason Mitchell during the first season of The Chi. Realising public opinion around the situation was not in her favour she took to the Breakfast Club to talk to Charlamagne and own her part in the whole situation. By her own admission, when Waithe found out what was happening, she spoke to Boone and told her “this is not cool” and she changed the structures on the show to make Boone more comfortable. Waithe hired a queer black woman showrunner, Ayanna Floyd, for season two, implemented sexual harassment training, told Jason Mitchell “you need to be respectful of any human on set” and both actors agreed enough changes had been made to return to work. Despite all of this heavy lifting by Waithe, Mitchell’s inappropriate behaviour persisted to the point Ayanna Floyd became a target of his “rage and inappropriateness.” The situation became untenable for Tiffany Boone and at the end of season 2, she asked to be released from her contract and was obliged.

Let’s compare and contrast the situation on the set of The Chi with what happened on the set of Desperados. Jason Mitchell was accused of making highly inappropriate remarks to two actresses in the film while lingering close to their quarters” then  “Netflix did a “quick but thorough” investigation by phone and the producers were given the green light to do what they thought necessary. Another insider says despite anxiety about possibly upsetting Netflix, Mitchell was terminated and replaced by Lamorne Morris.” As much as we love Lena Waithe we cannot in good faith dismiss the cold, hard truth that this is level of urgency, efficiency and protection that should have been extended to Tiffany Boone.

Listen, it is expensive to make television. Recasting an actor, a lead actor at that, would jeopardise an entire show but in this post #MeToo environment it is unacceptable that the well-being and safety of both a lead actress and a showrunner, both black women, were put in jeopardy to protect a predator to keep this series in production. There are many people to blame in this situation; faceless, nameless people who couldn’t care less about the dignity of any of the victims involved so don’t be mistaken and think Waithe is the only one involved. However, Lena Waithe did not have the courage of her convictions. The same energy and cultural capital Waithe used setting up structures to combat Jason Mitchell’s abuse could have been used to pressure Showtime or Fox21 to fire him. Seriously, deep it with me for a moment. Waithe told Charlamagne “I’m not really in control over who stays or goes on the show. I can make a pitch! I can say, ‘Yo, let’s get rid of this person.’” So why didn’t she make a pitch to get rid of Jason Mitchell?

The bottom line is the rehabilitation of sexual abusers and predators cannot come at the expense of their victims and the road to their redemption cannot be paved across those targeted by their violence. This has been a teachable moment for Waithe but I regret greatly that Tiffany Boone and Ayanna Floyd’s bodies, minds and safety were the sites for her lessons. Waithe says she won’t work with Mitchell again and that’s great but why was the road here so winding when there was a more direct path? I cannot imagine the tumult caused when someone close to you is accused of sexual assault but as a leader in this fight you are obligated to make difficult decisions that might cost you money, friends and even a hit show. The cost is high but the value of one’s integrity and the safety of those who rely on your stewardship is priceless.

This article has been re-published with permission from DanielleDash.com and the original can be found here. Follow Daniellé on Twitter and read more of her articles here.

Daniellé Abena Scott-Haughton is the writer, director and producer of the award winning web series series Dear Jesus. She makes a living making up stuff in comedy and drama development for a production company in London. Daniellè has come to terms with her addictions to Twitter & Netlix and knows one day she’ll win an Academy Award. Until then she’s content to throw shade and create opportunities for herself, other black women and people of colour in general.

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