tv Lena Waithe’s Search For An “Authentic” Black Experience Muddles Her Twenties
Among Black creatives and their intended audience, there’s an ongoing debate about whether there is such a thing as being “authentically Black,” and if so, how that should be depicted onscreen. From the way African Americans talk (and code-switch) to how they wear their hair, to the cultural fact that sweet potato pie is the only pie that exists during the holidays, there is a distinctness, beauty, and joy Black people possess. Despite how the media refers to African Americans (see “the Black vote”), they are not monolithic, and because of class, gender, sexuality, location and proximity to whiteness, there are no real rules to being authentically Black. Capturing that identity is a balancing act, teetering from creating unrecognizable protagonists that are essentially just white people dipped in chocolate to characters rocking “Woke AF” tee-shirts with dialogue that essentially screams, “I’m Black, y’all. I’m Blackety Black and I’m Black y’all.”
With her film Queen & Slim and her new BET comedy, Twenties, Lena Waithe shows she hasn’t quite mastered that balancing act either. Based on Waithe’s 2013 web series of the same name, this semi-autobiographical, handsomely directed series centers on Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), a cocky yet endearing know-it-all who moves to Los Angeles from the Midwest to live out her dream of becoming Hollywood’s next big writer. Of course, Hattie can’t do it alone—her straight best friends, studio exec Marie (Christina Elmore) and yogi turned aspiring actress Nia (Gabrielle Graham) are always there to save Hattie from herself, hype her up, and be the much-needed voice of reason. The hilarious Kym Whitley rounds out the cast as Hattie’s mama.
Twenties’ premise is intriguing, as it’s still rare for a TV show to center on a Black butch stud, let alone open with a lesbian sex scene. (More, please.) This isn’t BET’s version of The L Word, either—aside from the “straight woman” Hattie can’t leave alone or the other women she has sex with, her life is pretty much surrounded by straight folks. That decision is made all the more interesting by Hattie being out and proud. Sadly, those compelling elements get drowned out by Waithe’s incessant need to remind you that this is a Black AF show with folks doing Black AF things.
For starters, Waithe may have named Hattie after Hattie McDaniel, the Gone With The Wind actress who, in 1940, became the first Black woman to win an Oscar. Not only that, but she also named Hattie’s boss Ida B. (Sophina Brown), a TV showrunner, after the iconic Black activist Ida B. Wells. Just in case you needed more evidence that these people aren’t white, Hattie rocks T-shirts emblazoned with the names of Black cultural icons such as Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. There’s also a car scene in which Hattie, Marie, and Nia break out in song to “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” from the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. Even more glaringly, the opening music for the pilot loudly blasts the words, “Melanin, I got melanin!” On the other end of the spectrum are confounding statements like Hattie observing that they’re the only Black people in the park watching All About Eve (Waithe’s real-life favorite movie) because “Black people don’t like to be outside.” It ignores the fact that playing in the park until the street lights come on and cookouts are also a part of Black people’s lives.
A few of these details can help paint a picture of “authenticity,” but stacking them in the pilot along with heavy-handed dialogue does Twenties no favors. Pilots are always tricky because they have to introduce viewers to new characters and rules, but the hyperfocus on Blackness distracts from the real issue at hand: Twenties’ character development. The show raises so many intriguing questions. Will Hattie realize that her being “Black and gay” isn’t enough of a reason for Hollywood to come knocking? Will she grow past her own Girls’ “voice of my generation” moment to discover that to be a real writer, you need to demonstrate talent and dedication? Will she be a less trifling, more self-aware friend to the sistas that constantly have her back? Better yet, will we learn anything more about her friends, who seem a tad underdeveloped?
Luckily, Twenties improves with each subsequent episode, and begins to offer answers to these questions. It stops trying so hard and just focuses on the characters’ journeys, which is where the series’ strengths lie. By the third episode, “The Happy Place,” Hattie finally surrounds herself with film and screenwriting books to get down to writing—or at least tries to. She falters on the way, but she begins to humble herself and discovers the importance of having a real work ethic. (Hopefully, Tyler Perry is paying attention.) Hattie’s enthusiasm is so infectious, thanks to Gibbs’ strong performance, it’s impossible to not root for her.
Further episodes also offer up a little more about Marie, who is trying her best to keep her sexless marriage to her corny husband together and fend off her British mother with a gambling problem, all while trying to get promoted at work without selling out. Marie can come off as a bit condescending, robotic, and three seconds away from a nervous breakdown, but there’s also something compelling about her. The same can be said of Nia, a perfect mix of chakras and shallowness who, like her friends, also has a Hollywood dream: return to acting and walk in her purpose. It’s a joy to see, just like having a dark-skinned Black woman be the only one in a healthy relationship with a dude (Big Sean) who supports her passions and rubs her feet while doing it.
Twenties has a lot of potential, thanks in part to its diverse group of Black women. Their stories are significant, as they combine addressing sexuality, racism, colorism, sexism, workplace drama, and ultimately, Black hope. But representation alone isn’t enough. Creators cannot coast on the idea that because their audience is famished to see themselves onscreen, viewers will accept anything. They also have to develop a better understanding of what they think Blackness is versus how Black viewers and critics not only live it, but how they want to see it play out on the screen. There’s been a considerable rise in opportunities for Black creators and artists, many of whom are doing excellent, inclusive work, so “rooting for everybody Black” isn’t by any means the default position.
For the moment, Waithe’s Twenties is fine, it gets by, but here’s hoping it exceeds that to become the Black excellence Waithe believes she can deliver—and that her viewers deserve.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, loving daughter, zombie slayer and not the one.