NEW YORK • Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series, spoke of gay empowerment at the awards show on Sunday night.
Her remarks tugged at the heartstrings of a sympathetic audience in Los Angeles and many more who toasted the milestone on social media.
“The things that make us different, those are our superpowers,” said Waithe, who is lesbian.
She was being honoured for her work with Aziz Ansari on his Netflix series Master Of None, which she also stars in. “Every day, when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world – because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
Waithe, 33, may have been topical, but her speech took its cues, in part, from a vintage award-show encomium delivered more than 15 years ago.
In a telephone interview on Monday evening, she connected her remarks to Halle Berry’s misty-eyed acceptance speech in 2002, when she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball.
Her award “changed me”, she said of Berry, who dedicated her Oscar to “every nameless, faceless woman of colour” in Hollywood. “It made me know that we as a community were really embraced by Hollywood in a real way.”
If that message has gone stale in intervening years (Berry remains the only African-American Best Actress winner), Waithe said she hoped to revive and expand it for a new era.
The winning episode of Master Of None, she said, was “about what it means to be queer, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a person of colour”. She added: “So for me, when I went up there, I wanted to make sure that all of those people knew that I shared that moment with them.”
The episode, Thanksgiving, has been a fan favourite since it was first released by Netflix in May. Tracing the childhood roots of the friendship between Waithe’s character, Denise, and Ansari’s, Dev, it follows them over annual Thanksgiving dinners, as they navigate Denise’s first efforts to articulate her sexuality. Denise’s mother, like Waithe’s, is socially conservative and worries that her daughter will face obstacles beyond the familiar ones from her own experiences as a straight black woman.
Waithe said Ansari heard her story and immediately felt it should appear on Master Of None. His instinct has paid dividends.
“The tremendous reception to that episode proves what I’ve continually found to be true,” Ansari wrote in an e-mail. Personal stories, he continued, no matter how “specific they may seem, when told with honesty and heart, can connect universally with everyone”.
Both Waithe and Ansari belong to a generation of young film-makers of colour who have challenged historical notions of what a television protagonist should look like.
Master Of None, like Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Issa Rae’s Insecure and Justin Simien’s Dear White People, is the beneficiary of pitched demand over the past few years for distinctive and demographically inclusive television programming brought on by the arrival of aggressive competition from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Waithe’s triumph on Sunday – and that of Glover, who became the first African-American to win a directing Emmy for a comedy series for his work on Atlanta – is a sign that these shows are making an impact.
Waithe began her career by assisting an earlier generation of black female auteurs, including Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay. Next year, she will make her debut as the creator of her own television show with The Chi, a Showtime series about young black men living in inner-city Chicago.
She is also working on a feature film and a TV series about “queer women in their 20s” and has a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
“So many other people could have won, but I think that, for whatever reason, there’s a person that is the vessel,” she said, paraphrasing Berry’s 2002 speech. “I hope to leave a path for others to follow, and to break down doors for others to walk through.”