Photo courtesy of Kareem Black/BET*

lena waithe on 'boomerang' and being a young, black professional

Paula Akpan speaks to the Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and actress about her new TV series that explores ambition, success and the challenges young, black millennials face.

by Paula Akpan
13 February 2019, 4:30am

Photo courtesy of Kareem Black/BET*

Existing as a 20-something black professional, attempting to reach your career aspirations is an experience marked by stomach-churning self-doubt, stupefying imposter syndrome, and walking into rooms where you’re often made to feel you don’t belong. All while attempting to find some semblance of a work-life balance and maintain important relationships. Navigating all this and more can be found in BET’s new 10-episode series, Boomerang, executive produced by Lena Waithe and Halle Berry. i-D chatted to Emmy award-winning screenwriter, producer and actress Lena about her fresh new take on the 1992 romantic comedy film, the pressure for black young people to be excellent, and the profitability of blackness in Hollywood.

The half-hour-long comedy, which premieres tomorrow, picks up where the original film -- which starred Halle Berry, Robin GIvens, and Eddie Murphy -- left off, but 25 years later. Boomerang follows the children of the iconic characters: ambitious and determined Simone Graham (played by Tetona Jackson) who also happens to be the heiress to her father’s advertising legacy and her close friend Bryson Broyer (Tequan Richmond), the charming newcomer at the Graham Agency who isn’t shy about his big ambitions. We follow the lead characters, alongside their ebullient cohort of long-time friends, as they tackle careers, love lives and all those messy Big Issues.

The idea of adapting, change and making your mark runs like a thread throughout the series; a very real stress for young black people as we are rarely afforded the luxury of being mediocre. “I think ultimately, black people still have the burden of being excellent, whether we like it or not,” Lena says. She refers to the impossible standards that black people are held to in relation to the current US president, saying “half the stuff Donald Trump is doing, if Barack Obama ever did that, he’d have been impeached”. With a narrative that requires black people to work twice as hard, rise above any maltreatment and maintain respectability, it begs the question, when do people like Simone and Bryson get to take a break from being excellent and trying to step out from their parents’ shadows?

For Lena, part of the problem of black excellence within Hollywood lies in the fact that, despite it feeling like we’re seeing so many black faces on our screens, there are just less black films. “There’s so many black shows and Boomerang’s adding to that, but if you think about all the channels, if you think about all the programming that exists, and then you tally up how many shows have predominantly African-American casts, and then you whittle it down to [shows that have] a black showrunner, and then whittle it down to [shows that] have a black director… it gets smaller and smaller and smaller.” Even with The Chi, the coming-of-age series created by Lena following the lives of black members of the South Side neighbourhood in Chicago, she had a white showrunner for the first season. “Luckily in the last couple of years, things have changed, I had a black [showrunner] in season two,” she tells i-D. “But we’re still playing catch up… we have a lot of catching up to do in this business.”

The actress explains there are just a handful of major corporate companies “that own pretty much everything, all these channels, all these streaming services, you see all these mergers happening -- the pool of people that own everything is getting even smaller”. This ever-shrinking pool of white gatekeepers in Hollywood means that, as Bryson quickly discovers, black skills, creativity and pain become simply another money-making opportunity. “The truth is, yes there are black people that make money and profit off of those things very well, but at the end of the day, the people that own the properties, the people that distribute the movies make way more money in the long run,” notes Waithe.

In episode one of Boomerang, Bryson is told that the problem with young people is “you tend to overthink things. You’re so afraid of failing that you wind up getting in your own way and not listening to your gut” -- a sentiment that will ring true for many young professionals today. Forging a career path in a white-dominated industry as a black working millennial where you’re made to feel like you should be grateful for each opportunity or, quite simply, shouldn’t be there, tends to lend itself to overthinking, fear of failure and that ever-looming imposter syndrome -- a psychological pattern where individuals believe that they are frauds and are undeserving of their achievements.

Unlike her character, however, Lena Waithe’s confidence in her craft and her skill buoys her when moving through such spaces. “I’ve earned this spot, I’ve worked hard… a lot of people know my journey, they’ve seen me being a personal assistant… they’ve watched me try to make videos online -- a lot of people in the business have watched me work my way to where I am and also see me still working to where I want to go.” However, despite her personal growth and having a deep understanding of what she brings to any table, the Emmy Award winning star knows that that's not the case for everyone, particularly those of us still trying to muddle out the next steps for our careers, but she stresses the importance of instinct. “I like to go with my gut. I don’t always get things right but at the end of the day, that’s what I do. I go with my instinct. A lot times I see artists think too much and they’ll make the choice and then they’ll go ‘no, no, maybe we should do that’ and I’m like, go with your gut, go with your instinct. Follow your heart rather than try do what you think is right.”

Boomerang promises a fresh look at young black adulthood, as we embark on a journey with the characters attempting to make sense of their lives guided by intuition, because as Lena explains, “Usually what you think is right is right, and if someone else thinks it’s wrong, that’s on them.”

Boomerang premieres Thursday 14 February on BET — Sky 194, Virgin 184, Freesat 140.

Lena Waithe