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Mentorship played a significant role in Waithe’s own career, having assisted on projects by directors Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay — both older and more experienced yet who also faced challenges as Black women in the industry. DuVernay made her first film on only $50,000, and Prince-Bythewood struggled to get several of her features green-lit, including the ultimately successful Love & Basketball. “I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices — which is to focus on people of color and more specifically women of color,” Prince-Bythewood said in an interview with NPR. “Those are the films that are not getting made and those are the films that take a lot more fight.”
“I’ve definitely seen Black women who have to do it without a whole lot of help or support, and really with a lot of pushback a lot of the times,” Waithe tells Mic. “A few more doors have been opened, but it’s still very much a male, white-dominated industry.” In just the last handful of years, both the Oscars and the Golden Globes have been criticized for bouts of all-whiteness — from the acting categories in the first case, to the voting board in the latter; abysmal statistics collected by the gender advocacy group Women and Hollywood show that even most speaking roles, over 70 percent, went to men in 2019’s 100 top-grossing films.
The Mentorship Lab, then, is a place for the marginalized. There are no specific criteria for what constitutes a marginalized person, though Waithe says, “If you’re not a white male, you are othered in a way” — and the participants reflect that — Black, brown, queer, nonbinary; mostly young, though some less so.
Kerby Jean-Raymond and Lena Waithe at the 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion. Photo by Mike Coppola/MG19/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue
Beyond the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the entertainment industry, Waithe also saw an issue with the LA-centric, come-with-funding, know-somebody-who-knows-somebody setup. Though she understands the importance of relationships in community-building and creating projects, she’s sought to make the Mentorship Lab a nepotism-free environment.