A lot has changed for Lena Waithe—and for Hollywood—since 2013. That was when the writer first shared her semiautobiographical comedy, Twenties, as a series of videos on YouTube. At the time, Waithe was an industry outsider hoping to attract network attention. Now, the 35-year-old has an Emmy Award, which she won for writing a 2017 episode of Netflix’s Master of None based on her own coming-out story. Waithe has also gotten the chance to make Twenties again, this time as a half-hour comedy for BET. The show, which premiered Wednesday, arrives in a very different landscape than its earliest iteration. “This is our world post–my character on Master of None; it’s a world post–Get Out; it’s a world post-Moonlight,” Waithe said in a recent New York Times interview, referring to Hollywood’s shift toward more inclusive storytelling, and noting what her new series brings to the industry: “This is the first time a masculine-of-center black woman has been the center of a show on primetime TV.”
Placing such a character at the fore of a cable series is a huge accomplishment. Twenties follows Hattie (played by Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs), an aspiring comedy writer based on Waithe herself, and her friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) as the three women navigate evictions, dating mishaps, and workplace strife. While the dialogue sometimes veers into cliché, Twenties is sharpest when its characters work through issues rooted in Waithe’s own path to Hollywood power. The show highlights and satirizes the struggles inherent in making entertainment for historically excluded groups: Black auteurs frequently don’t get to just worry about making art that speaks to their own interests. Because of discrimination in Hollywood, creators also shoulder what the Jamaican Canadian director Stella Meghie recently called “the unbearable weight of representation.” That burden also affects viewers, who may feel the need to support some unremarkable work for fear of losing what little black programming exists.
In its pilot, Twenties puts those conflicts front and center. The series examines the authenticity of black art most obviously through the charged interactions between Hattie and a high-powered black TV executive named Ida B. (Sophina Brown), who leads a show called My Bae. From their first meeting, the two clash. Hattie’s interview for a job as Ida B.’s assistant begins with straightforward questions: an inquiry about why she wants the gig. A quick check to see what her favorite scene from the show’s last season was. But, suddenly, the showrunner flips the script. Ida B. confronts the 24-year-old with the most terrifying background check of all: years’ worth of Hattie’s inflammatory tweets about the show, including one in which she’d said it’s “basically telling women that they need to find a man who isn’t afraid to tell them what to do, even if that man works at RadioShack.” Sitting in Ida B.’s palatial home and in dire need of some way to pay her bills, Hattie attempts to walk back her critiques of My Bae but fails. Before sending Hattie away, Ida B. tells her to wait a decade or two until she has her own platform—then she can make whatever kind of black art she wants.
Their intergenerational exchange is smugly combative and made all the more fascinating by the obvious allusions to the real-life showrunner Mara Brock Akil, the Girlfriends and The Game creator for whom Waithe once worked. The scene is also one of the more self-aware moments on Twenties, an uneven satire that nonetheless conveys some of Waithe’s most nuanced thoughts on the impossible standards that black creators are often held to. Toward the end of her ill-fated interview, for example, Hattie challenges Ida B.’s dated approach to portraying romantic relationships among black people: “You could use your platform to do a lot more than showing a dope black woman falling in love with a fake-ass Billy Dee Williams.”
Twenties isn’t one-directional in its judgments, though. Hattie’s friends attempt to keep her in check too. The three women spar over whether they each feel the need to watch—or at least refrain from publicly criticizing—certain bad works from black artists for the sake of supporting black art as a whole. Hattie, Nia, and Marie differ in their political and aesthetic priorities, but they all feel some level of protectiveness over shows and movies focused on black characters. In their discussions of the work produced by industry veterans such as Ida B., and black viewers’ mixed responses to it, the women of Twenties also explore, by extension, the strange place that Waithe herself now occupies.
The show is debuting at a particularly fraught time in Waithe’s career, one in which she’s much closer to Ida B.’s position than to Hattie’s. The series is airing less than four months after the release of Queen & Slim, the romantic crime drama Waithe wrote. That film, which stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, follows two young black people who go on the lam together after their first date ends with the accidental killing of a police officer. The Melina Matsoukas–directed feature earned middling reviews from several black critics (myself included) for its clumsy, self-serious exploration of black suffering in America. (In one characteristic sequence, the titular couple’s first and only love scene is choppily interspersed with footage of a protest happening elsewhere, in which a black teenager they’d met earlier that day shoots a police officer in the face.) But some of these writers—such as Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, who argued that “the movie’s anger is never given the complexity it deserves”—were met with backlash from black fans who saw the criticism as some sort of racial betrayal.
Waithe’s own writing was very recently the subject of the same kinds of unimpressed assessments that Hattie—the character based on her—levies in Twenties. Queen & Slim, like any project, was never going to satisfy all viewers or capture the full breadth of black experiences. But Waithe’s work has been especially susceptible to critiques of its messaging about blackness, or about what it means to be black. Queen & Slim, for example, relied on viewers’ presumed frustration with real-world police brutality to fill in the gaps in its script. The Chi, the hour-long drama that Waithe, a Chicago native, produced for Showtime, assumed a level of viewer exhaustion with the myth of “black-on-black crime.” Both works seem to anticipate an audience—in particular a black audience—that would necessarily be sympathetic to their weighty themes, banking on relatability rather than fleshing out developed narratives.
For those who have been watching the incremental rise in shows from black creators, the reliance on shorthand and assumed cultural hallmarks may be familiar. Shows such as Dear White People (from the frequent Waithe collaborator Justin Simien) and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It took similar shortcuts in their characterization of young black people as archetypes rather than as distinct characters. Twenties can be guilty of this tendency at times, even while making fun of it. But the show’s lighter tone makes that impulse far more forgivable on Twenties than in Waithe’s earlier works. Even when jokes on the BET series fall flat, they’re still jokes. Hattie might be opinionated and obnoxious, but she’s clearly young, despite her very Harlem Renaissance–era name. She’s idealistic, too. She believes her boss—and the industry they all work in—can and should be better. In the meantime, the fate of My Bae is not a matter of life and death. And thank goodness for that.
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