EXCLUSIVE: ‘Master of None’ Star Lena Waithe Praises the ‘Black Girl Magic’ That Earned Her an Emmy Nom

by Stacy Lambe 9:25 AM PDT, July 14, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

Following last year’s breakout success, Master of None avoided the sophomore slump with a critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated season two.

Among its eight nominations -- up from four last year -- is one for Lena Waithe, who, in addition to playing Denise, co-wrote the standout episode “Thanksgiving” with the Netflix series co-creator and star Aziz Ansari. The episode earned them a shared nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, putting them up against episodes for Atlanta, Silicon Valley and Veep. The episode also earned Angela Bassett, who plays Denise’s mother, a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. 

EMMYS 2017: The Complete List of Nominees

While the recognition is a “wonderful gift,” Waithe tells ET “there’s so much reward to have such a creative outlet to tell my story and to talk about things in a way that people have thought about, but have never said.”  

For this episode in particular, which tells the story of Denise coming out to herself, her friends and family over five Thanksgivings starting when she’s 12 years old, it’s not one seen on TV very often. It’s a black story. It’s a female story. It’s a queer story. It’s all three combined, told through this unique narrative of gathering around the same dining room table over the course of 22 years. 

“I didn’t realize that hadn’t been done before. I was like, ‘Have black girls never come out on television?’” Waithe recalls talking to Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang about the concept of the episode. She credits their curiosity about how the actress-writer got to where she is now, a confident queer black woman, for pushing her to write her story. “I was like, ‘Oh, good question.’ Because there was a time I was trying to hide,” she says.

While she thanks Yang, Ansari and his younger brother, Aniz, for helping her write the story (“It was very collaborative”), she praises director Melina Matsoukas, who has pivoted from Beyonce music videos to helming episodes of Master of None and Insecure, Bassett and Kym Whitley, the longtime comedic actress who plays Denise’s aunt, for bringing the episode to life. “There was some black girl magic on that set; truly,” Waithe says, gushing over Bassett in particular. “I believe this episode would not be what it was without her. She was the center and the heart, and played the pivotal role in terms of my life and in that story.” 

In a statement to ET, Bassett said that she always thought of herself as funny and thanked the Master of None team for giving her "a beautiful opportunity to show that a 'secret' side of myself." Appreciative of the episode's message, Bassett added that it "just goes to show you that it all starts with a great script -- in its pages lay heart, humor and the idea that family is where we should feel safe to express ourselves with boldness." 

A scene from the Emmy-nominated Master of None episode, "Thanksgiving." Photo: Netflix

And when it comes to showing a story like this on TV, Waithe cannot be more grateful for the chance to tell it and also see it so well received. “It’s important for people to see, whether you’re gay or not, and for them to embrace it was really amazing,” she says, adding that its success allows her (and the show) to continue to take more risks and tell unconventional stories. 

Waithe also hopes that it will continue to push TV and storytelling in the right direction. “I want to see more queer characters of color on television written by queer people of color. That’s super important,” she says, while also acknowledging the success of other shows led by nonwhite casts, like Atlanta, black-ish, Dear White People, Insecure and Queen Sugar for leading a movement. “There’s definitely a resurgence happening.”

While Insecure, Dear White People and Queen Sugar were shut out of this year’s Emmys, Waithe says “we’re all applauding each other [and that] the industry is recognizing us and taking notice.” And what’s most exciting about all the Emmy recognition is the impact their representation can have.

“A young brown kid in Detroit, in Chicago, in Mississippi is going to watch it and go, ‘Oh wow. They did it, so maybe I can tell my story too. My story is valid as well,’” Waithe says.