Lena Waithe, Hollywood powerhouse: awards and projects keep coming
Groundbreaking Emmy Award-Winning writer, creator, producer, actor, and CEO LENA WAITHE is an industry game-changer leading a cultural revolution. She skyrocketed to celebrity with her work on Master of None, becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a comedy. In 2021, Lena was honored by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation with a Gracie Award for The Chi. A sought-after cultural commentator and innovator, Lena’s creative ventures are prolific and always center under-represented communities in media. She launched a new record label with Def Jam called Hillman Grad Records, penned a multi-project deal with Audible and sits on their advisory board, and formed a book imprint with Zando focusing on emerging voices. Lena’s production company Hillman Grad Productions has partnered with Indeed to launch Rising Voices, a $1M investment in BIPOC filmmakers. Lena and Hillman Grad Records produced Radha Blank’s film The Forty-Year-Old Version, which premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance 2020 Film Festival and won “Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic,” among numerous other accolades.
Lena expertly taps into emerging cultural sensibilities with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective and challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms. Her passion for supporting underrepresented creatives drives her work as a writer, producer, and inspires her fashion from her ode to sneaker culture in GQ to iconic appearances on the red carpet. An in-demand voice, Lena exudes effortless charm while refocusing every endeavor on values-driven, intentional choices in collaboration. When asked “what’s next?” Lena replies, “everything.”
Virtual Programming: Lena Waithe on being a game-changer
Groundbreaking Emmy Award-Winning writer, producer and actor LENA WAITHE is an industry game-changer who first made headlines in front of the camera as Denise, friend to Dev (Aziz Ansari) in the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None. In a role that was originally intended for a straight, Caucasian female, Waithe made Denise’s experience as a queer black woman uniquely her own. She went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy for her writing for the show, becoming the first black woman to do so. In 2021, she won a Gracie Award from the Women in Media Foundation for Writer-Scripted Drama. She launched a new record label with Def Jam, called Hillman Grad Records, with the intention of developing new artists from underrepresented communities.
Waithe expertly taps into emerging cultural sensibilities with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective and challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms. An in-demand voice, she's been engaging in dynamic virtual conversations on Instagram Live, gave an ode to sneaker culture in GQ, was in a virtual conversation with Reese Witherspoon, participated in Graduating Together, the livestreamed graduation program headlined by Barack and Michelle Obama, and recently joined a diverse advisory board at Audible to help discover new talent.
Emmy®-winning writer, producer, actor, and CEO Lena Waithe continues to lead the cultural revolution in Hollywood with creativity, diversity and charisma. Waithe expertly taps into emerging societal trends with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective, while challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms.
With her impressive eye for discovering and spotlighting underrepresented voices, Waithe navigates the intersection of business and entertainment in conjunction with her own production company, Hillman Grad Productions. The company passionately fights against the status quo by giving marginalized storytellers the platform and opportunity to access the industry, while allowing them to tell their stories. The comprehensive slate includes projects at Warner Bros, Netflix, BET, Disney, Amazon, Universal, Focus, and MGM.
Hillman Grad Productions goes above and beyond to provide a platform and fellowship for diverse voices on the rise through the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab. The lab offers opportunities for marginalized storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their careers in television and film through personalized instruction from industry professionals in the fields of television writing, screen acting, and executive development. While Hillman Grad Productions has already mentored roughly 600 actors, 120 writers/directors, and 30 producers, the 2021 Class will be the first group to go through the official Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab. Previous Mentorship Program “alums” are working and excelling throughout the industry such as Tiffany Johnson who, alongside Waithe, was awarded a 2020 TRIBECA X AWARD recognition for “Best Series” for their anthology series, GIRLS ROOM.
Recently, Hillman Grad Productions signed an exclusive overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. Through their partnership, Waithe and Hillman Grad president Rishi Rajani will produce new television programming through Hillman Grad for all platforms, including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, external streaming services, cable, and the five broadcast networks.
In their first project under the deal, Waithe and Hillman Grad are currently developing a scripted drama inspired by the landmark documentary film Hoop Dreams. Written by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the coming-of-age drama will follow two African American teenage boys in 1990s Chicago experiencing the privileges and pitfalls of being high school basketball phenoms at the heigh of the Jordan era, and the start of high school players turning pro. Through their friendship and rivalry, the boys must learn to empower themselves in a world that considers them commodities. Waithe and Rajani will executive produce Hoop Dreams under the Hillman Grad banner along with James, Gilbert, and Mark, as well as Scott Huff, David A. Stern and Colin Calendar of Playground Entertainment and Thomas.
This year, Hillman Grad Productions has partnered with Def Jam Recordings to announce the creation of Hillman Grad Records, a label that's committed to identifying and developing underrepresented artists and priming them for long-term success in the music industry. Waithe and Hillman Grad Productions’ President of Film and TV, Rishi Rajani, will be joined by Def Jam Interim CEO Jeff Harleston and former Colombia Records and Soundcloud executives Tebs Maqubela and Albert Cooke, who together will discover new voices and amplify their storytelling abilities across music, TV and film.
In another effort to amplify underrepresented voices, Hillman Grad has partnered with independent book publisher Zando. Hillman Grad will acquire and publish four to six books over a three-year period, including memoirs, young adult titles and literary fiction.
Hillman Grad Productions has also recently partnered with Indeed to create the Rising Voices Initiative, which will select 10 BIPOC filmmakers to create short films with a production budget of $100,000 each. Waithe and Rajani will serve as the executive producers for the short films to ensure all have extensive mentorship from creatives like Waithe, Rajani, award-winning director, Melina Matsoukas and music video directors, Paul Hunter and Calmatic as well as have line production crews for their projects. All of which amount to a $1.35 million commitment for the emerging filmmaker program.
In addition, Lena Waithe, Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monaé have partnered with ID's Founder and CEO, Kelly Bush Novak to create 'Defining Moments,' a paid training program led by ID's team of experts, designed to launch candidates into the field without requiring the industry connections or college experience common to entry level programs. 'Defining Moments' is known as an apprenticeship program for adults over 21 for whom a paid, part-time, curated program makes entry into the industry possible. This year, Four Apprentices for the inaugural program were hand selected by Waithe, Erivo, Monaé and ID.
In conjunction with Hillman Grad Productions, Waithe previously served as one of the lead mentors for AT&T’s Filmmaker Mentorship Program. Launched in 2017, the program seeks to discover, incubate, and empower emerging filmmakers from underrepresented communities to evolve their work, grow their audience and provide national distribution on platforms such as DIRECTV and DIRECTV NOW.
On the production side, Waithe and Hillman Grad are currently producing the semi-autobiographical series, TWENTIES, which Waithe writes and executive produces for BET, now in its second season. The show was praised for being the first primetime series starring a masculine presenting Queer woman of color in a lead role. Because of this, TWENTIES was selected as a finalist for MIPCOM’s Diversity TV Excellence Awards in the category of “Excellence Award for Representation of Race and Ethnicity – Scripted” and nominated for a 2021 GLAAD Media Award in the category of “Outstanding Comedy Series.” The nomination was BET’s first GLAAD nomination in the television space, further cementing its impact on the industry as an example of overdue intersectionality between BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community. For the second season, both Waithe and Rajani executive produce TWENTIES THE AFTER SHOW, a half-hour show that will explore key themes in each week’s episode of TWENTIES and will highlight an esteemed roster of Black LGBTQ+ voices, giving them the platform to share their personal experiences with the world. TWENTIES THE AFTER SHOW will be hosted by B. Scott, who will serve as the first trans non-binary person to host and executive produce a show at BET.
On the acting side, Waithe can be currently seen in the critically acclaimed third season of MASTER OF NONE: MOMENTS IN LOVE, which Waithe co-wrote, executive produced and stars in. The Guardian and The Independent praised the season with five stars and Kevin EG Perry deemed it, “the most raw, honest and utterly compelling portrait of a relationship that’s likely to be produced this year.” Inkoo Kang of The Hollywood Reporter also praised, “[the show] truly dazzles, pushing MASTER OF NONE out of its comfort zone of lovelorn pining into emotional and ethical complexities that never lose their sense of headlong romance.” The role was originally intended for a straight, Caucasian female, yet Waithe has made Denise’s experience as a queer Black woman uniquely her own. In the second season, Waithe co-wrote the “Thanksgiving” episode, for which she received an Emmy Award in the category of “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series,” making her the first Black woman to ever do so, and a NAACP Image Award nomination.
Recently produced films include Radha Blank’s groundbreaking film, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION, which blends real life and fiction to follow its protagonist, a down-on-her-luck New York playwright, who decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice by becoming a rapper at age 40. The film premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance 2020 Film Festival, winning the festival's “Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic,” and was quickly purchased by Netflix for distribution. The film was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% rating. Blank and the film won “Best Screenplay” and was nominated for the “Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award” at the 2021 IFP Gotham Awards, “Best First Film” at NYFCC Awards, “Directors to Watch” at PSIFF, “Next Generation Award” at LAFCA Awards, won “Best First Feature” from the Toronto Film Critics Circle, received a “Best Comedy” nomination from Critics Choice Awards, an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for “Best First Feature” and received 3 NAACP Nominations for “Outstanding Directing,” “Outstanding Writing,” and “Breakthrough Creative - Motion Picture,” along with nominations at DGA in the category of “Outstanding Directorial Achievement Of A First-Time Feature Film Director for 2020,” BAFTA in the category of “Leading Actress” and AAFCA in the category of “Breakout Performance.” Blank also set the record for most individual nominations ever for the Black Reel Awards with seven nominations for her and eight for the film all together.
Waithe and Hillman Grad Productions will also produce a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic for MGM along with Sight Unseen’s Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman. Additionally, they have teamed up with Focus Features, Sight Unseen, and Makeready on the feature directorial debut of A.V. Rockwell, for her film A THOUSAND AND ONE.
Waithe made her feature film screenwriting debut with Universal’s QUEEN & SLIM, directed by Melina Matsoukas and starring Academy Award® nominee Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner. The film opened to incredible box office success and received rave reviews for its “thought-provoking, profound and deeply affecting” storytelling, as mentioned by The Wrap’s Todd Gilchrist. The film received numerous accolades including two AAFCA awards, seven NAACP Image Awards nominations, one award at the annual National Board of Review Gala and “Best Picture” at the BET AWARDS.
Waithe also wrote and executive produced BET’s BOOMERANG which aired for two seasons. Additionally, it was recently announced that Hillman Grad Productions will partner with Macro Television Studios to produce another original series for BET+ titled BIRTH OF COOL. The 10-episode half-hour dramedy marks Waithe’s third original production with the network.
Waithe’s previous first-look deal was with Amazon Studios. The first show as part of the deal was the horror anthology series THEM, from the mind of Little Marvin, which Waithe executive produced. She had previously been under a first-look deal at Showtime to produce projects such as the critically acclaimed series THE CHI, which Waithe executive produces and just announced its fifth season. The Showtime drama series is a relevant, timely, and distinctive coming-of-age story that follows six interrelated characters in Chicago’s South Side. The show has received a Peabody Award nomination, and Waithe received two NAACP Image Award nominations.
For her numerous television successes, Waithe was named The Hollywood Reporter’s 2020 “TV Producer of the Year,” making her the youngest to receive the massive honor. In 2019, she was honored with the “Creative Impact in Producing Award” at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Waithe was also selected by the American Black Film Festival Honors to receive the “Industry Renaissance Award,” which recognizes content creators whose exemplary work in film and television contributes to changing perceptions of people of color in the entertainment industry.
Waithe appeared in the third season of HBO’s WESTWORLD and in Justin Simien’s horror satire BAD HAIR which premiered to rave reviews at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was quickly purchased by Hulu for distribution. Previous acting credits include Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE, Disney’s ONWARD, Showtime’s THE CHI, Netflix’s #BLACKAF and their animated series BIG MOUTH, Quibi’s YOU AIN’T GOT THESE, NBC’s THIS IS US, and many more.
Waithe is an advocate for queer representation throughout the industry and has been honored with several accolades such as The New York City LGBT Community Center’s “Trailblazer Award,” a GLAAD “Media Award,” The Trevor Project's “Hero Award,” the MTV Awards “Trailblazer Award,” named OUT Magazine’s “Artist of the Year” and featured on the cover of the OUT 100 annual issue, and featured in numerous LGBTQ impact lists and Pride issues across publications such as The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Variety, and more.
Waithe grew up in Chicago and currently resides in Los Angeles.