‘Awkward Black Girl’ Creator Talks Hollywood, Race and Creative Control

Aug 22, 2011

Since "The Help" came out, I’ve been reading lots of commentary about race, gender and Hollywood. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read the phrase, "But we don’t support our own" in response to a critique of mainstream representation of black life, I could start my own studio. The defeatist idea here is that when "we" do manage to create quality, nuanced, authentic or heroic stories, "we" don’t buy enough movie tickets or pull enough Nielsen weight to prove that there’s a demand for more.

I’m not going to get into how absurd it is to expect individual consumers of color to suddenly transform a staggeringly white, male, risk-averse industry that has been profiting from racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, cornball narratives since its inception. Instead, I’ll give you the wise words of Jeffrey Wright, who recently linked the dearth of strong black storylines to a lack of traditional financing:

"The issue for all black artists is who controls the resources that allow for the work to happen. It’s said that he who controls the resources controls the story. […] I don’t really see black cinema because there’s no African American financing that’s equal to the talent among writers, directors and actors. There’s no circle that can be drawn to define African American cinema. We’re probably one of the few cultures in the world who don’t have a firm grip on our own cultural output in that way."

Watching the growth of my favorite Web series, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Friends," (ABG), I’m optimistic about the future of black storytelling online. The show, which debuted in January, centers on the internal life of J, an insecure, shockingly uncool young black woman with a teeny ‘fro and a regular body. Through her hilariously dry voiceovers–and her comical gangster raps–we get J’s alienated take on everything from bad spoken word to racially insensitive co-workers to cross-cultural friendship. On the first Thursday of every month, some 60,000 viewers tune in to the short episodes. And the show’s L.A.-raised, Senegalese-American creator and star, Issa Rae, recently signed with United Talent Agency and 3 Arts Entertainment, the same folks who rep Tina Fey.

By July, however, Rae and ABG producer and costar, Tracy Oliver, were running low on personal funds. To keep the show going while they weighed their growing mainstream options, the duo launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000. Fans donated $56,259 for five more episodes. Clearly, there’s a demand for black, female-centered satire that deals with isms in the same breath as office stapler theft.

Being the ABG stan that I am, I checked in with Rae late last week. Below, excerpts of our phoner:

One of the things that stands out about ABG is how the characters are as defined by their hilarious quirks as they are by their cultural identities. You have Baby Voice Darius, J’s black coworker who refuses to speak above a whisper but has the nerve to DJ house parties. There’s Cee Cee, J’s Indian American best friend who is clueless about race but sees herself as an expert on interracial dating. And of course there’s J–the passive aggressive, alienated misfit. It’s rare to see people of color play these kinds of characters. Did you set out to expand the boundaries when you came up with the show?

I did want to create characters who weren’t represented on TV because people are thirsty. [But] the characters are also an extension of me. For example, [low-talking] is a pet peeve of mine; Baby Voice Darius is just an exaggerated version it. The same goes for J. I have way more friends than she does and I’m not as insecure, but I’ve definitely dealt with people not getting me.

J’s awkwardness is almost painful at times. How did you know so many people would relate to her?

Well, I have four brothers and sisters, and we’re all awkward. That’s where I get my humor from; we’re one big awkward-ass family. And then there’s my mother. She really is the mother of all awkwardness.

Your mom is awkward? I need an example.

OK, this one is sad: A family friend’s son tragically passed away at 35, of cancer. Because my mom took so long to get ready, we were running late for his funeral. We showed up in the middle of the service, rolling seven-deep. Everybody turned around to look at us, the preacher included. After we’d all gotten seated, my brother picks up a program, sees that it’s for an elderly lady named Odessa Mae Brown! All seven of us had to get up and interrupt this woman’s service again. It was so awkward.

That’s beyond awkward; that’s excruciating. You know a lot of women in the entertainment industry wouldn’t tell a story like that in an interview. [Laughs.] I do wonder how you’re going to maintain what’s so original and quirky about your work as you grow.

That’s the biggest thing I’m struggling with right now. I didn’t realize at first how important the vision of the show was, and how much I love the cast. I’m coming to terms with the fact that if we sell it to a network, a lot of things will be out of my control. Tracy and I have talked about keeping this on the Web until we have real leverage. We just have to see where it goes.

I can’t imagine a show like this originating on television–network or cable. Everybody looks and acts so–regular.

Half the people in the show are my friends! I knew Tracy, who plays Nina, from college. I went to high school with Tristen Winger, who plays Baby Voice Darius. My little brother, Enimal, does all of the scoring and he guest stars. I just had to tap into my resources and carve out this Web space because studios aren’t supporting our work. The reality is that studios don’t like to make black movies. No matter how good your script is, they’re trying to replicate Tyler Perry’s work, put out his work, or just do movies like "The Help."

You graduated from Stanford with a poly-sci and African American history degree. Any other observations about Hollywood’s race problem?

I would say that right now, Hollywood doesn’t understand race and they’re not considering it. It’s up to us to acknowledge and combat the stereotypes because mainstream media just don’t care. They’re making money either way.

It seems like you’ve found another way. Do you have industry people trying to figure out how you’ve pulled this off?

A couple of people have asked me, but it’s not like they’re falling all over me to get this made. I know if I was a white girl, people would be on me tough. But I’m not a white girl. [Laughs.]

Very true. [Laughs.] To switch gears: Anyone who watches ABG knows how much you adore Donald Glover. You’ve shouted him out in two episodes and talked about him in previous interviews. Has he reached out to you?

Yes! He follows me on Twitter and he even asked for one of my t-shirts. When I found out he was following me, I started screaming. My boyfriend was on the couch looking at me like I was crazy. [Laughs.]

OK, so we know you love "Community," and you’ve cited the British version of "The Office" as an influence in previous interviews. Are there any shows you watch and say to yourself, ‘Wow, I would never, ever want my work to be like this.’?

[Laughs.] You’re trying to get me in trouble! This industry is so small, I’m learning to censor myself more.

Well, you do describe yourself as a director, writer, editor–and messtalker on your site…

True. Yes, there are shows that I don’t want to emulate. Let’s just say a lot of them are on TBS. [Laughs.]

On a serious note, do you have any advice for people who want to create their own Web productions?

I would recommend that people tap into their network of people. If you have talented family and friends, work with them before you look elsewhere because they’ll be reliable and consistent. And make sure you use that network to get the word out as well.

*Post has been updated since publication.