In 2015, Viola Davis made history by becoming the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. In her acceptance speech she said that "the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." But for Lena Waithe, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series on Sunday night and became the first black woman to do so, while opportunity is key, it's not enough.
The Master of None star and writer (she won for the standout episode "Thanksgiving") believes that on top of opportunity, women need to be able to tell their stories with as much specificity as they need to —without worrying about everyone being able to relate.
"I think the biggest thing is to allow women and women of color to really let their voices be heard,” Waithe says on Tuesday evening less than 24 hours after she won her award. The 33-year-old says that men literally come in to TV writers rooms to rewrite women ("women of color by white men sometimes”) in order to make the women more universally relatable — to make it so that men are able to relate to them, too. “They’re not trying to be mean or assholes, they’re just trying to say, we want this to relate to everyone.”
Waithe believes that the main lesson to come from this year’s Emmys is that everyone relating to everything is not the key to making successful TV. “What we can all learn from [Sunday night] is, no, allow women to be as specific as possible, allow women to be as free as possible in their storytelling, and allow them to be as vulnerable as possible,” Waithe says. “And don’t be afraid of our voices because the world craves us. The world needs our voices.”
She’s right and the proof is right there in the list of Emmy winners for this year. In addition to her historical win, women-focused shows took home many huge awards during the night. The Handmaid’s Tale won for Outstanding Drama Series, Big Little Lies won for Outstanding Limited Series, Veep won for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Reed Morano was the first woman to win for directing a drama series in 22 years. And it wasn’t just women’s voices that were honored time and time again, people of color also took home many top awards, including Donald Glover’s wins for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Directing for a Comedy Series for his show Atlanta and Riz Ahmed becoming the first Muslim to win a leading acting Emmy and the first South Asian actor to win an Emmy for acting at all. It’s clear that diverse stories are ones people want, as well as ones that win awards.
Speaking of Ahmed and Glover, Waithe met up with her fellow history-makers after the show, and they took a few photos together with their Emmys. Waithe posted a photo of herself and Glover to Instagram, and Ahmed posted one of the three of them along with Glover's brother with the simple caption, “we here.”
“Just pure and utter brown joy,” Waithe says of the photo. “I love The Night Of, I love Atlanta, and I'm a fan of those guys, and for them to be my peers is just joyous.”
But for Waithe, it goes beyond just being happy for one night; she sees what happened on Sunday, and what is happening for people of color in the entertainment world in general, as part of a much larger narrative.
“I think about the Harlem Renaissance with freakin’ Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. And you think about the renaissance in the '90s where you had Spike Lee and John Singleton and Rosie Perez and Wesley Snipes," she says. "For us to be the step forward in that bloodline is an honor, it’s a joy, and it's beautifully humbling.”
Waithe's win clearly means a lot to her, and she knows that it will mean a lot to other women writers and writers of color. She doesn’t mind being the first, as long as more progress follows her historic win. “It feels like I can give people hope,” she says. “At the end of the day, a first is fine, but you don’t want to be the last. I just hope that I can inspire someone to follow that dream and tell their story and be just as victorious as I am."