Lena Waithe on Bringing Diversity to Hollywood With Rising Voices Program: 'We Have a Ways to Go' (Exclusive)

Lena Waithe

ET spoke with the Emmy-winning writer, creator and actor about the third year of the Indeed: Rising Voices program.

When it comes to amplifying the voice of diverse creatives in Hollywood, Lena Waithe isn't just talking the talk. The Emmy-winning writer and producer recently entered the third year of the Indeed: Rising Voices program, an initiative that "aims to discover, invest in, and share stories created by BIPOC filmmakers & storytellers around the power and meaning of work."

In partnership with 271 Films, Waithe's production company, Hillman Grad, selects 10 filmmakers to award a $100,000 production budget. Those filmmakers produce a short film, with access to mentorship and support from the advisory panel, and premiere their films at the 2023 Tribeca Festival in New York. After the program's conclusion, Indeed invests in marketing and support for the finished films' distribution, along with the festival debut.

"It is probably one of the most intense programs we do because they have such a short period of time, but that's what's exciting. It creates opportunities," Waithe told ET. "Deondray and Quincy [LeNear Gossfield], who were part of our first year of Rising Voices, are currently producing directors on The Chi's sixth season. So this is really an entry point and it's becoming a way for people to show what they got. The industry can really see who's out there and it's not even taking a risk, it's a sure thing. So it's exciting to go into season 3 and that energy and excitement is still there."

The creator and actor shared that having the Rising Voices program as a stepping stone is meant to give diverse creators a place to cut their teeth and the production companies involved aren't afraid to give the creatives their first work out of the program. "Because we believe in them and we see the work, we're hoping that other people will want to give them opportunities too. So for us, that's really why we wanted to do it," she added.

In an industry frequently tussling with a lack of diversity, Waithe noted that Hollywood shouldn't pat itself on the back anytime soon because "we can always be more diverse." 

"We can never be diverse enough until everybody's story is being told and it's very clear that's not happening yet," she went on. "We definitely have a lot more stories that are coming out that we haven't seen. Look at films like Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Woman King in terms of the splash they made. And even with what we're trying to do over at Disney+ with Chang Can Dunk. There are stories that are being told and [they're] still new. These things are still not the norm yet. So that to me means that yes, we're making steps forward, but we still have a ways to go."

Waithe pointed out that Hollywood has spent many years being "exclusive," with the industry just starting to open up for Black creators and creators of color. "But we need it to be all the way off the hinges. So I look forward to that and I'm honored to be a part of this journey that we're on," she said. "But we know that there's still a lot more work to do, particularly when it comes to [mainstream] recognition. So I think there's still a lot of space for us to continue to push in terms of stories and boundaries. Who gets to tell these stories? How are they promoted, how much money do they get? There's still a lot of work to do."

Initiatives like Indeed: Rising Voices are one of those ways to help people get the opportunity to break through that door, Waithe noted. "All people need is an opportunity. And I think it's about having programs that can provide those opportunities that aren't just lip service," she added. "We really want to give these folks a chance to show what they got and then, whether it be us or someone else, says, 'Hey, let's hire them.'"

Waithe, who is preparing for the premiere of her Sundance Film Festival award-winning and Teyana Taylor-led film A Thousand and One, also teased what's coming down the line for her TV creations: The Chi and BET's Twenties. 

Showtime renewed The Chi for season 6 back in August, while its fifth season was still airing. Although Waithe couldn't give ET a premiere date, she teased that the upcoming season will be "unlike any other season of The Chi before."

"Everybody won't survive," Waithe ominously warned of the upcoming installment. "It'll be a very unique season, unlike any other season we've had before. And it's probably one of the most emotional seasons that I've been a part of to date. And I've been there the whole time! So season 6, it's coming."

As for Twenties, Waithe said that the BET series has some unique developments of its own in the wings. She told ET, "The good news is, it's not done. I think a lot of people were asking, 'Is it canceled? Is it not coming back for season 3?' There's a new development over there and we're really excited about it."