Black love is tough love. It’s being about each other. It’s to ride on each other and to make light of each other. It’s never vindictive, or mean. It’s like, I’m here to keep you grounded. Black love is complicated. Black love is hard. Black love is many things. It’s compromising. It’s communication. Black love is healing all wounds. –A Summary of Black Love by Lena
The historical evolution–the ‘Golden Age’–of Black cinema and Black love on the screen began to flourish in the 90s, delivering a plethora of instant-cult classic Black films with range and depth about love, friendships, and culture. Emmy® Award-winning writer, creator, producer, actor, and founder of Hillman Grad Lena Waithe chats with us about the history of Black love in film and her unbiased approach to bringing stories and characters to life on the screen.
Although Lena writes about romantic love a lot and has picturized it throughout her projects, she finds romantic love to be less significant within the Black community. Rather, she recognizes the chosen family as the kind of love that is vital and often, more unconditional than the love that we receive from those we’re kin to.
On The Chi, love is about not making the same mistake twice, and throughout, the gems and the takeaways are abundant. “How do you make sure that your partner can communicate to you when you trigger their wounds and why they’re triggered?” Characters like Rob (Iman Shumpert) who initially read for the role of Christian, Keisha’s nerdy boo, is a chill-ass, weed-smoking ass nigga who is more understanding than God. But, Lena has found that the people watching really f*ck with Rob’s energy and his approach. “Know that when somebody wins an argument, both parties lose,” says Lena who reminds us to not toss around offensive language that makes us feel validated in our opinion or wins an argument.
Lena’s creative process is heavy on intention. “It’s not triggering your purpose when you do it unintentionally. It’s my job, literally, every day, when I sit down to write characters, I can’t judge people.” Under the disguise of judgment, characters are likely to agree with each other, lowering the scale of life-or-death stakes and ultimately, the drama that we all love to see. “The characters should not be on the same page,” and every now and then, Lena has to defend characters’ actions that may not even align with her personal beliefs in real life. For that reason, she has to step inside the character’s shoes to make sure that they are justified in their argument, maintaining an authentic balance.
For the creator, it was love at first sight and at a young age. Lena writes about love because she has always been surrounded by it and is not afraid of it being complicated. “I came to realize that love has always been complicated. But in the right space, it’s supposed to be unconditional. When it is conditional, that’s when you want to be mindful.” Even characters like Ronnie in The Chi are a window into Lena’s childhood where she witnessed substance abuse and folks going away to do time. Still, it was always love.
Moving into her grandmother’s home on the Southside of Chicago after her mom and dad were divorced, along with her sister, was one of Lena’s most beautiful experiences, “I got to say [that] I grew up in the house that my mother was raised in.” Her mother was a first-generation Chicagoan because her grandmother was from Arkansas and left for the Windy City at seventeen years old. There, Lena’s grandmother raised Lena’s mother, aunt, and uncle. Her mother lives in Chicago to this day.
To bring love home, Lena references “Thanksgiving,” an episode on Master of None, Lena’s Emmy Award-winning screenplay, where Denise (Lena Waithe) comes out to her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett). The creator gives her TV mother space “to sit in that and be like, ‘No, I’m not a villain. I’m just a fifty-seven-year-old Black woman who doesn’t make any sense of this. What’s going on?’” It’s a conflict between a mother and a daughter who don’t understand each other, born of different times and experiences, trying to get it together. “Even when we’re tough on each other, we’re mad at each other, there’s always a love there.”
In the future, Lena wants to see characters that choose themselves. “That’s what I do. I pay attention to the conversation,” on social media, Lena says, who’s always tapped into the real, casual back and forth. And self-love most definitely made the era-of-doing-me list in 2023. “To be like, I don’t need nobody to be up in here with me. I don’t need somebody to validate me or a relationship to make me whole,” is something the writer hasn’t seen, but hints that someone in Season 6 of The Chi is some “self-partnered” type shit.
Lena’s Top 10 Films On Black Love
Bad Boys (1995) “One of the first things I wrote down, and one of my favorite movies. I watched it on my birthday one year. There’s such a love between Will and Martin’s characters. It’s a pure, platonic brotherly love and that’s something that obviously spoke to all of us. We love watching them love each other.”
Love Jones (1997) “Love Jones is quintessential. What I love about it is, it shows a very imperfect romantic love. And I think sometimes we can throw words around like problematic or toxic [when] it’s people who don’t have it all figured out trying to figure out the hardest thing to figure out on the planet: how to love each other. That’s what love is. It’s two people who are imperfect trying to find peace with each other.”
Waiting To Exhale (1995) “It shows a sisterly love that reminded me so much of my mom and her friends. I mean, literally, she had friends named Paulette, Lily, Monique–just the most, Beverley. That’s what I was around. I was around Waiting To Exhale all the time. They were all single. But there was a sisterhood. There’s a bond. There’s love. There’s an understanding.”
Love and Basketball (2000) “The mother-daughter love in that relationship. Because even when the mom smacks Monica, it’s sort of done in a way of like, I’m not one of your little friends. Don’t forget who you’re talking to. But also, you’re becoming a woman now. You have opinions. I don’t get to talk down to you and tell you how to behave. And I really appreciate that relationship. People always focus on Quincy, but look at the relationship between her mother and her [and] how that evolves over the course of the film.”
Soul Food (1997) “I love that it was about the grandmother’s love, a big mama’s love, and when it’s taken away, how it can disband an entire family. I love that they don’t shy away from that character passing away before the third act. Like, you have to actually be with the family. How do we keep going? What do we do with Uncle Pete? One of the sisters ain’t talking? And so does their tradition. That is very reflective of, when Grandma dies, people don’t have a need to come home anymore. That’s why I love the end of the movie, because they find a way. It’s shitty because he bribes them with money, but everybody winds up back in the house and they’re like, Oh, we can still do this even though Grandmother is here in spirit.”
House Party (1990) “I love the last scene where they go bail him out of jail and he walks out and sees his friends stand up. It’s just a beautiful shot; Reginald Hudlin knew what he was doing. The score comes in, and that’s the whole point of the movie. That’s why that movie goes to Sundance. That’s why that movie is still iconic.”
Paris Is Burning (1990) “And last but not least is Paris Is Burning which I recently revisited and revisit once or twice a year to have that gratitude. It’s such a pure love that they all have for each other. Even if they’re throwing shade. Even if they’re like, You know how the children are. ‘It does take nerve to walk in a ball.’ That’s also us. We’re tough on each other. We give each other a hard time. We tease each other. And I think that love is also important.”