In the past few weeks, we have seen some serious drama unfold publicly from the set of the Lena Waithe Showtime drama ,The Chi. Suddenly one of the stars, Jason Mitchell was thrust into the spotlight in a negative way, getting dropped from not only The Chi but also the Netflix movie Desperados, and his agency, UTA, for multiple sexual misconduct allegations.
We now know that Mitchell’s behaviour was so bad that his co-star, Tiffany Boone, was forced to leave the show. As all the news was unfolding, 2016 allegations of Mitchell’s investigation for assault when a woman accused him of slamming her to the ground in Boston resurfaced. Boone’s allegations were that she felt unsafe on set due to Mitchell’s sexual advances toward her. There were other actresses on set who felt the same, and Fox 21 producers decided to release her and keep Mitchell. People online were accusing Boone of getting Mitchell fired, when it was Netflix who started the ripple effect when they investigated an off-set allegation. And Boone’s complaint was handled privately by The Chi.
Now, with much of Mitchell’s behaviour being made public information, things don’t add up. If it has been resolved, why did Boone leave? And why was this story buried? The public face of The Chi, outspoken #Metoo advocate, brilliant writer and Hollywood star Lena Waithe has been implicated due to her inaction on this, with The Chi showrunner Anyanna Floyd claiming Waithe knew details about Mitchell’s behaviour well before it went public and more importantly, when she could have done more for Boone. In fact, this goes back to season one of The Chi, with Floyd telling The Hollywood Reporter, “When I took the helm in season two, it was Lena who informed me of the issues between Jason Mitchell and Tiffany Boone from season one, and that Tiffany was thinking of leaving the show because of it. As a result of this information, I discussed Tiffany’s claims with the studio’s HR department and set up HR presentations for the writers, cast and crew. Ultimately, everyone was well aware of Jason’s behavior and his multiple HR cases, including Lena, the creator and an executive producer of the show, who is very involved at the studio and network level.”
This stood out to me, as this stands in direct contradiction to how Waite often speaks about Hollywood, discrimination and of course, Black women. And since good PR moves faster than the internet, it didn’t take long for Waithe to respond to this. On May 30th, Waithe did a phone interview with The Breakfast Club, speaking extensively on this matter and her culpability. She admitted to knowing the situation and addressing it with Mitchell, eventually implementing sexual harassment training and speaking to him about respect on the set. This clearly did not work, as reports of Mitchell’s rage and inappropriateness toward Boone made her leave the show, despite multiple HR cases against him on the same set. Interestingly enough, on The Breakfast Club, Lena alluded that her growing power eclipsed her from knowing exactly what was going on, saying,
“When it’s your first thing, you are almost an employee..and I wasn’t made aware of anything going on with Tiffany after the season had wrapped. We did discuss stuff that just wasn’t appropriate. By that point, I had a little bit more power, a little bit more clout and here’s what I’m going to do- I’m going to hire a woman of colour as the showrunner..that was in direct reaction to what I heard was going on with the show.
When Waithe cites hiring Ayanna Floyd here for season two and I see what she means but placing another Black woman as a shield against a predatory Black man definitely did not work out in this case and it sounds familiar. Oftentimes, it’s up to us as Black women who are the only ones there for each other in uncomfortable or dangerous situations like this, and we suffer the most. Clearly, both Waithe and Floyd had good intentions, but perhaps it was too late, or too little was done.
Lena Waithe, as we know, is a trailblazer. With success comes power, and with power comes responsibility. And in this new era, as women are advancing into uncharted territory, how are women on the margins managing new power? Lena Waithe, unapologetically Black, queer and brilliant, has generously given us a refreshing and inspirational blueprint for writers and artists hoping to break into the elite world of television writing and general leadership at a high level. Many may think it’s been fast, but those who know her career know she built it brick by brick, studying cinema and television arts at Columbia College Chicago and starting as a production assistant on the prolific show Girlfriends. But it’s not just hard work- an immense amount of strategy and discipline was involved. Now, as we find ourselves observing what could be considered her biggest public mistake, I have to ask, what are the lessons? Where could Lena have done better? Are we even equipped to know this?
When this story broke, reports of Boone being harassed for taking action against Mitchell echoed the too familiar backlash that women-and Black women in particular-have to deal with when accusations against their abusers go public. We are meant to shoulder a strange guilt of airing out our men, fueled by misogynoir which finds it roots in patriarchy, adding up to calling us liars instead of looking into the allegations themselves. Having Lena Waithe tied in compounds how complicated things are. Waithe is well aware of toxic masculinity, but patriarchy not only hurts everyone, it can be upheld by anyone, even unintentionally. It’s clear we have a long way to go until Black women are fully heard, respected and protected. This case, while high profile, shows us that none of us are immune.
While they face sexism, white women started the first wave feminist movement for themselves, hoping to reinforce the same power structures that white men had, inadvertently oppressing everyone else. It is only when third wave feminism and intersectionality implicated these structures as problematic, that we asked for a better world, absent of ideologies that failed to promote equity. We have to be careful to not reinforce the things we critique in our everyday lives- and it’s hard work. Oftentimes, power redefined does not look like power at all. Hopefully, Lena Waithe is navigating what happens in the space in between knowledge and power.
Attached - Lena Waithe in London for Fashion Week.