Originally published for VerySmartBrothas on June 7th, 2019.
When it was announced that rising actor Jason Mitchell—known for his performances in Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound and The Chi—had not only been released from his contract as a series regular on The Chi but was removed from an upcoming Netflix film (and dropped by his agent and manager), the initial response was a consensus: For him to get shunned by the industry this swiftly, whatever offenses he’s accused of must have been beyond the pale.
Even more surprising was that many of the alleged offenses happened on the set of The Chi, the brainchild of self-professed Time’s Up activist Lena Waithe, who hasgone on record stating “If you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I’ll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”
As we now know, the forcefulness of her language belies the truth of what happened on set. Tiffany Boone, who played Mitchell’s character’s girlfriend Jerrika, endured harassment for the first two seasons of the show to the point that her fiancé had to come on set whenever she shot scenes with Mitchell. And at least one other actress filed complaints—as well as Ayanna Floyd Davis, the showrunner for season two. It took 10 days, however, for Waithe herself to speak on the record about the accusations and fallout—choosing the platform of a 40-minute phone interview with Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club.
It comes off as a curiously intentional decision when you consider that in the window between the public discovery about Mitchell and her one-on-one with Charlamagne, Waithe guest hosted an episode an of Jimmy Kimmel Live, replete with a viral kiss with Halle Berry, with nary a mention of the crisis existing on the set of her show.
Despite work by multiple organizations and public figures to get the harassment of black women covered on a national scale and Waithe’s own self-avowed affiliation with national organizations with Hollywood ties, when it came time to address issues within her own purview, it became an “in-house” discussion. And one with a moderator who has had his own problematic past with black women.
In The Breakfast Club interview, when asked about the measures she took upon being made aware that Boone endured harassment in the first season, Waithe stressed that she took action by placing women of color in positions of power, a tactic that would seem to only expose more women to Mitchell’s alleged abuse. (And in hindsight did, considering Davis filed complaints of her own.)
Placing figureheads as a countermeasure isn’t a controlling agent for behavior nor is it accountability—it’s a toothless symbolism without any reasonable expectation of change. These certainly aren’t recommended practices (pdf) in the Leading With Transparency guidelines provided by the Time’s Up organization on navigating sexual harassment in the workplace. Given the pile of quicksand Davis walked into, it’s no wonder she was unable to stem the chronic harassment from recurring and even being directed her way, a point Waithe seemed to omit when discussing her regrets of “trusting someone else to do my job.”
When it comes to the matter of Waithe’s job within the universe of The Chi and in the activist-minded cultural space she simultaneously wants to inhabit, there are some blatant contradictions—seemingly borne out of a desire to exist both in the world of the haves and the have nots. In the same breath that we are informed she ensured that the season two staff was helmed by black women, she insisted that despite being the creator and executive producer with multiple writing credits and an Emmy to her name, she didn’t have much influence in the firing decisions—a sentiment she reiterates at the 15:30 mark of the video, when defending her choice to allow Boone to leave as opposed to lobbying for Mitchell’s departure: “I’m not in control over who really stays or who goes in the show…the truth is, there’s a world in which I can say it’s me or Jason, and they may take Jason.”
It’s an incongruous juxtaposition that recurs throughout the conversation, rendering it difficult to parse through the true nature of Waithe’s position. Starting at 6:25, for example, there’s a protracted discussion in which she proudly establishes herself as both being regularly on set on her shows, making sure it is a safe space for women during sensitive moments, before adjusting her position around 8:45 to that of a boss with too many employees to manage all of the comings and goings and needing to delegate it out to trusted individuals.
In regard to Boone’s season two return, the initial disclosure was that by the time Waithe was made privy to the situation, both Boone and Mitchell had come to an agreement and were willing to work together again, only for Waithe to mention that she sat with Boone and implored her to “give me an opportunity to change your environment.” This act seems innocuous on its face, but adjusts the level of involvement she purportedly has. These statements were made one right after the other—13:35 minutes in—making it difficult to comprehend exactly what Waithe knew and when.
To date, we still don’t know the specifics of all the allegations against Mitchell—Waithe alleges not to know them herself—and they are frankly irrelevant. While the specifics will certainly leak in due time, if Mitchell did create an unsafe working environment for several women, many of them black, that is reason enough to hold him accountable immediately.
For Lena, the palpable disappointment of many of her fans lies in the fact that she seems to be incapable of divorcing her need to protect her brand as an advocate and champion for the marginalized from providing clear accountability on the failures that endangered multiple women on the show. When she had her own opportunity to “lead with transparency,” she instead chose to sidestep, displacing as much blame as possible to another woman—who also endured harassment—while also subtly victim-blaming as justification for her failure to act in a truly productive manner.
In a piece I wrote a while ago on cancel culture and public apologies, linguist Edwin Battistella explained how the initial apologies are almost always guided by self-interest, stating “people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”
In many ways, this describes what is playing out with Waithe now. In expecting her identity and political capital to bolster her through this PR moment, she forgot that her political capital is tied to whether or not she truly upholds the rubric of the moral fabric that she claims to stand behind. This incident was a failure in that regard—an exercise in extemporaneous self-defense as opposed to empathy and clarity.
Near the end of The Breakfast Club interview, Waithe states to Charlamagne, “Hollywood needs to be a safe space for black women and I think we all need to do better about that.” The sentiment is a beautifully worded logical fallacy, pointing the finger back at the world before allowing anyone to hold her accountable for her clear failings as the name and advocate behind this project. It would truly be unfortunate if that in all the women Lena failed here, the last one would be herself.