EXCLUSIVE: 'Master of None' Star Lena Waithe Praises the 'Black Girl Magic' That Earned Her an Emmy Nom
By Stacy Lambe
Following last year’s breakout success, Master of None avoided the sophomore slump with a critically
acclaimed and Emmy-nominated season two.
Among its eight nominations -- up from four last year -- is one
for Lena Waithe, who, in addition to playing Denise, co-wrote the standout
episode “Thanksgiving” with the Netflix series co-creator and star Aziz Ansari.
The episode earned them a shared nomination for Outstanding Writing for a
Comedy Series, putting them up against episodes for Atlanta, Silicon Valley
and Veep. The episode also earned
Angela Bassett, who plays Denise’s mother, a nomination for Outstanding Guest
Actress in a Comedy Series.
While the recognition is a “wonderful gift,” Waithe tells ET “there’s
so much reward to have such a creative outlet to tell my story and to talk
about things in a way that people have thought about, but have never said.”
For this episode in particular, which tells the story of Denise coming out to herself, her friends and family over five Thanksgivings starting when she’s 12 years old, it’s not one seen on TV very often. It’s a black story. It’s a female story. It’s a queer story. It’s all three combined, told through this unique narrative of gathering around the same dining room table over the course of 22 years.
“I didn’t realize that hadn’t been done before. I was like, ‘Have
black girls never come out on television?’” Waithe recalls talking to Ansari and
co-creator Alan Yang about the concept of the episode. She credits their curiosity
about how the actress-writer got to where she is now, a confident queer black
woman, for pushing her to write her story. “I was like, ‘Oh, good question.’
Because there was a time I was trying to hide,” she says.
While she thanks Yang, Ansari and his younger brother, Aniz,
for helping her write the story (“It was very collaborative”), she praises director Melina Matsoukas, who has pivoted from Beyonce music videos to helming
episodes of Master of None and Insecure, Bassett and Kym Whitley, the longtime comedic actress who plays Denise’s aunt, for bringing the episode to
life. “There was some black girl magic on that set; truly,” Waithe says,
gushing over Bassett in particular. “I believe this episode would not be what
it was without her. She was the center and the heart, and played the pivotal
role in terms of my life and in that story.”
In a statement to ET, Bassett said that she always thought of herself as funny and thanked the Master of None team for giving her "a beautiful opportunity to show that a 'secret' side of myself." Appreciative of the episode's message, Bassett added that it "just goes to show you that it all starts with a great script -- in its pages lay heart, humor and the idea that family is where we should feel safe to express ourselves with boldness."
And when it comes to showing a story like this on TV, Waithe cannot be more grateful for the chance to tell it and also see it so well received. “It’s important for people to see, whether you’re gay or not, and for them to embrace it was really amazing,” she says, adding that its success allows her (and the show) to continue to take more risks and tell unconventional stories.
Waithe also hopes that it will continue to push TV and
storytelling in the right direction. “I want to see more queer characters of
color on television written by queer people of color. That’s super important,”
she says, while also acknowledging the success of other shows led by nonwhite
casts, like Atlanta, black-ish, Dear White People, Insecure
and Queen Sugar for leading a
movement. “There’s definitely a resurgence happening.”
While Insecure, Dear White People and Queen Sugar were shut out of this year’s
Emmys, Waithe says “we’re all applauding each other [and that] the industry is
recognizing us and taking notice.” And what’s most exciting about all the Emmy
recognition is the impact their representation can have.
“A young brown kid in Detroit, in Chicago, in Mississippi is
going to watch it and go, ‘Oh wow. They did it, so maybe I can tell my story
too. My story is valid as well,’” Waithe says.