Lena Waithe offers tips for success



Lena Waithe returns to Columbia to offer aspiring film students advice about how the industry works.

By Assistant Campus Editor

Lena Waithe, a 2006 Columbia alumna and screenplay writer based in Los Angeles, returned from L.A. to her hometown for the premiere of “Dear White People,”- which she produced, at the Chicago International Film Festival. While in town, she stopped at Columbia to have an open discussion with one of her favorite former professors, Michael Fry. 

Waithe is the producer of the highly-anticipated film, which examines stereotypes and society ills from the perspective of young black Americans and opened Oct. 24 in select theaters. She is also the creator of the pilot presentation “Twenties,” a four-part online pilot presentation that outlines the experiences of young black women, which has more than 250,000 views combined on YouTube. Waithe returned to Columbia Oct. 20 to discuss her success and to offer advice on how to thrive in the film and television industry.

Waithe, a South Side native, said her love for writing and storytelling was influenced by the culture of Chicago and her upbringing.

“Being raised in a house of women and hearing conversations was the early part of my love for storytelling and wanting to tell stories through particularly female voices of color,” Waithe said.

Waithe credited the 1987 “A Different World” as the show that sparked her interest in writing and her desire to be part of the television business. Waithe said she was motivated to become proficient in reading and writing and began honing her craft at 7 years old.

“I think those characters on ‘A Different World’ were very potent and specific, and it made me want to create characters whose problems didn’t seem superficial,” Waithe said.

She advised students to take advantage of the opportunities they have at the college and to pursue programs like Semester in L.A.

She said participating in the program contributed to her success in the industry because she was able to land an internship before graduation, which gave her a competitive edge over other recent graduates in the industry. The program also helped her develop her style, she said. 

“Find your voice,” Waithe said. “Figure out what your end game is. Be specific about what you want to ultimately be doing and don’t try to tackle 18 things at once.” 

Waithe said following her semester in L.A., she stayed in the city and continued pursuing her passions, making use of the connections she gained. Although she returned to Chicago to graduate, she said she headed right back to the West Coast afterward.

Waithe encouraged students at the event to consistently create original content because they have to be ready to present their own quality work at any moment. 

“It is a temperamental business, but you don’t have to be,” Waithe said. “When you stay on the course, the business will rise up and respond to that. You have to know what you have [and] act as a commodity because you are, and the industry will treat you as such.”

Caleb Strode, a sophomore cinema art + science major, said he wanted insight on how someone from Chicago was able to get their art out on a wide scale, as well as how to separate himself from other young filmmakers.

“I wanted to gain a knowledge of how she was able to infiltrate the industry, what kind of things I could do with my own unique take on society and how could I obtain the appropriate means to introduce my art,” Strode said.

Strode said he attended because he and other students in his position need the advice a young professional like Waithe is offering.

“We need people like her to come back and tell their story, because without that,we have no proof of where we’re headed, as well as how the industry is evolving and how it may receive their work,” Strode said.

Alexander Joseph Perez, a junior television major, said a class he is currently taking in lighting and production set up the studio for the interview and he got to take advantage of Waithe’s advice inadvertently. Although he had never heard of her before the event, Perez said he was appreciative of the opportunity.

“She is a walking, talking inspiration,” Perez said. “Just to hear her story and know that she was in the exact situation that I’m currently in as a student at Columbia and was able to pave the way, gives me more drive.”

Perez said the opportunity to see young working professionals is an asset to students because the entertainment industry is unforgiving and can be challenging to break into. 

“Meeting with Lena and hearing her speak definitely reinforced discipline, hard work, sacrifice and dedication,” Perez said. “Hearing her story allowed me to grow and lit a new fire in my heart to want to be successful because everything that she said affirmed that it is not impossible.”