Lena's Liability?

One can only imagine what Lena Waithe’s calendar looks like these days. Likely jam-packed, with barely enough time for her to eat and sleep. An Emmy-award winning actress, producer, and screenwriter, these last few years of Ms. Waithe’s life read like a fairytale, with her rapid and meteoritic ascent into the upper echelons of Hollywood. 2018 concluded with Ms. Waithe gracing the cover of Time Magazine, having been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2018.  Early 2018 brought the premiere of The Chi, a Showtime drama created and developed by Ms. Waithe herself.  And in 2017, Ms. Waithe made history by becoming the first African-American female to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, for her work on the television series Master of None. Oh, and she got engaged that same year to her longtime girlfriend, Alana Mayo. Ms. Waithe, in addition to being a brilliant and groundbreaking actress, is currently on her way to becoming an icon in the LGTBQ+ community for her work and commitment in pushing for diversity in artistic representation and equal treatment of people of color, with an emphasis on addressing issues that affect queer people of color. In her historic and emotional 2017 Emmy acceptance speech, Ms. Waithe stated, “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.” But in an unexpected turn of events, Ms. Waithe has been on an apology tour these past few weeks, with the spotlight turned on her for the wrong reasons—her being forced to explain her role with respect to persistent sexual misconduct occurring on the set of her own show, The Chi, by an actor on that show—Jason Mitchell. All eyes are now on Ms. Waithe—an accomplished, celebrated, queer woman of color for whom the sky is the limit—as she grapples with the nuances and her responsibilities within the current, high-risk sexual misconduct landscape. And now, what next for Lena? And what, really is Lena’s liability in all of this?

The story that led to these allegations coming to light began when, sometime in 2018, Tiffany Boone, a lead actress on The Chi, informed show executives that Jason Mitchell, a lead actor and Ms. Boone’s love interest on the show, had engaged in behavior with her that was sexual and inappropriate in nature, while on set. These allegations against Mr. Mitchell, made by both actresses and staff from The Chi, as well as from Mr. Mitchell’s other pending production, Desperados, on Netflix, became public in April 2019. Ms. Waithe has stated that she did not know of the accusations against Mr. Mitchell until after the first season of The Chi had wrapped, and that she personally spoke to Ms. Boone, who had made numerous complaints about Mr. Mitchell. Ms. Waithe claims that she apologized to Ms. Boone for what had occurred thus far, and said further actions would be taken to resolve the issue. Ms. Waithe has publicly stated that after learning of these allegations, she made the decision to hire Ayanna Floyd, a woman of color, as The Chi’s showrunner, and that said decision, according to Ms. Waithe, was “a direct reflection of me trying to change the attitude and the environment on that set.” Ayanna Floyd has released numerous public statements agreeing that when she came aboard for Season 2 of The Chi, Ms. Waithe informed of her the numerous claims against Mr. Mitchell, and had detailed the tense and worsening relationship between Ms. Boone, one of the show’s lead actresses, and Mr. Mitchell. Ms. Floyd now insists that as the filming for Season Two progressed, she made Ms. Waithe aware that Mr. Mitchell’s conduct was not getting better, but that Ms. Waithe never took any further action to attempt to correct the issue. Ms. Waithe, since the news of Mr. Mitchell’s misconduct has come to light, has done numerous interviews, explaining her thought process and the actions she personally took when she learned of the allegations. Ms. Waithe has stated that she ultimately deferred to Ms. Floyd, as showrunner, to manage the allegations, as Ms. Floyd had told Ms. Waithe that she would “handle it”. As Ms. Waithe has now readily agreed, in numerous interviews, the situation definitely and unfortunately never was “handled”.

As for now, Ms. Waithe continues her apology tour, offering up numerous regrets as to what she should have done to prevent the misconduct from being allowed to fester and continue. Ms. Waithe has said that perhaps she should have personally reached out to Ms. Boone about her continued complaints as soon as Ms. Waithe was informed that matters had not gotten any better during the filming of Season Two of The Chi. The working environment on the set of The Chi ultimately became so toxic that, after the filming of Season 2, Ms. Boone became so fearful of Mr. Mitchell that she informed show executives at The Chi that she could no longer work with Mr. Mitchell, and quit the show. Ms. Waithe has pointed to her hiring of Ms. Floyd, a black woman, as the show runner for Season Two of The Chi as a thoughtful and deliberate step to prevent the misconduct from continuing. Ms. Waithe has also shared that she herself spoke to Mr. Mitchell about his behavior, and had informed him that it was unacceptable and needed to stop. But despite these actions taken by Ms. Waithe, it is clear that what she did was not enough—and that for months, both talent and staff on her show were forced to work in an environment that was abusive, hostile, and potentially dangerous. Ms. Waithe’s attempted remedies show a person in a position of power who was informed of misconduct and who tried, by various means, to take specific and intentional steps to correct the behavior, and to prevent any future misconduct. Which begs the question—what went wrong?

Production sets—whether on a Hollywood soundstage, or in a community theater—do not have the tools to offer a clear and consistent reporting mechanism when there are allegations of wrongdoing and misconduct. Where’s the Human Resources door to go knock on after an actress has just performed her seventh take on a scene being filmed at 5 am in a remote location? For the protection and well-being of both cast and crew, it is imperative that there exist an independent, easily accessible, party to which complaints can be made, night or day, whether filming in a rural locale or on a soundstage. Additionally, despite Ms. Waithe’s seemingly heartfelt conversations with Mr. Mitchell, done in an attempt to stop his bad behavior, it flat-out didn’t work. Period. The cure for this is that there must exist two things on every set, always—written policies and written procedure manuals regarding set misconduct—that are written and disseminated to cast and crew. The written policies must outline and list what is unacceptable behavior. The written procedure manual articulates the consistent and uniform course of action that will be taken when a misconduct complaint is made. That course of action, at a bare minimum, should include a full investigation being conducted, where witnesses, whether the complaining witnesses or otherwise, speak immediately to an independent, 3rd-party investigator. Additionally, the investigator should then take next steps, including collecting any additional evidence, and at the conclusion of the investigation, write an investigative report, summarizing their work, and making a conclusion about the allegations.

It does appear that Ms. Waithe’s heart was in the right place in her unsuccessful attempts to get the bad behavior to stop. Both her apology to Ms. Boone for the misconduct on set, as well as her conversation with Mr. Mitchell, telling him to stop his behavior—evince her desire for things to get better. But—respectfully—Ms. Waithe does not have the skill set and background, either as an investigator or as a victim advocate, to perform interviews and investigations that could produce corrective or ameliorative results. It is clear that a sense of justice, however delayed, has come for Mr. Mitchell. Shortly after news of the misconduct allegations broke, Mr. Mitchell’s agent, manager, and lawyer dropped him as a client. He was then fired from his role in the upcoming Netflix movie, Desperado. And most recently, the MTV Video and Movie Awards eliminated him as a nominee for the role of Best Actor in a Television Show—a nomination that he snagged for his acting work on The Chi. Time will only tell as to how many more press outlets Ms. Waithe will have to visit in order to explain the actions that she took, and to apologize. In one of her most recent interviews, Ms. Waithe regretfully stated the following—“Even though he’s an actor on a show of mine, his behavior is also a representative of me and I can’t have that…Ultimately my regret is that an actress on my set felt unsafe and that is not something I would ever want.”

Kia Roberts