Issa Rae and her Web series ‘The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’ are rising stars
By DeNeen L. Brown,
The North Hollywood bachelor’s pad is steamy hot. The shades are drawn to keep out the light, the windows shut to block outside noise. The single air-conditioning unit has been stilled, and the refrigerator has been clicked off to eliminate buzz. A 12-person film crew is stuffed inside this one-bedroom apartment, which is serving as the set for an episode of the popular Web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
The star and creator, Issa Rae, who spent her early childhood in Potomac, waits at the door, ready to make her entrance. Rae wears a plain black sweater, white socks stuffed in black flat shoes. Her hair is cropped in a short Afro. Her earrings dangle. Her eyebrows crouch, tracing her emotions.
This is the episode where her character, J, who identifies herself as an “Awkward Black Girl” is about to get it on with her love interest, White Jay.
All season long, the tension has built to this moment. Will they? Won’t they? (Spoiler alert: The sections about the filming of the show will reveal some details.)
“Roll cameras,” a director shouts. “Episode 207, Scene 11, Take 1.”
An assistant claps the slate.
“Jay!” Awkward Black Girl yells, rushing into the apartment and looking down at the buttons on her shirt. “I’m about to break that baaaaack!”
She undoes the buttons diligently, fumbling a bit , exuding an awkward sex appeal.
“You are not ready for this!” Awkward Black Girl continues yelling.
Buttons undone! Triumph! Cheesy grin.
She rips open her shirt to reveal an ocean-blue bra, then looks up.
Oh, no! White Jay and two of his friends are in the kitchen, staring.
Awkward Black Girl had failed to make sure her boyfriend was alone when she arrived at his apartment and made her flamboyant entrance.
J spins around, faces the door, her face frozen in one of Rae’s now-patented “Awkward Black Girl” expressions.
Does stuff like this happen to anybody else?
Rewind to Episode 1 of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
Cue the music.
J introduces herself to viewers: “I’m awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone can be.
“That someone was right.”
With those words, Issa Rae created a show that has prompted a virtual dialogue about race, culture and perception, while busting stereotypical portrayals of black people in television and film. Episode 1, which was posted in February 2011, has received more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube. The 15 episodes that have followed have been viewed more than 13 million times.
Critics say Rae has bypassed mainstream media’s gatekeepers to create a character that hasn’t existed. “One of the reasons Issa Rae is so popular and the Web series ‘Awkward Black Girl’ has gone viral is that it effortlessly complicates and counters the narratives that have been historically produced about black women,” such as the Mammy (comforting), the Jezebel (promiscuous), the Sapphire (outspoken, angry), says Kimberly C. Ellis, a scholar and social media critic known online as Dr. Goddess.
The character of J, Ellis says, “is multifaceted, has idiosyncrasies and has complications.”
J also challenges the expectation that black women have to be strong, Ellis adds. “The idea that all these women are ‘strong black’ women — that is a trap and a cage because it means you can’t show your vulnerability. You can’t show you are awkward. You can’t show you make mistakes.”
Being “black and awkward is the worst,” Rae says in an interview, “because black people are stereotyped as being anything but awkward in mainstream media. ... Black people are always portrayed to be cool or overly dramatic, anything but awkward.”
She has a point. When you pause to think about it, other than Urkel of “Family Matters,” awkward black television characters don’t immediately jump to mind. Cool black characters, now, that’s a different story: There’s Bill Cosby on “I Spy” and “The Cosby Show”; Pam Grier as “Foxy Brown”; Diahann Carroll as “Julia”; Will Smith as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”; Blair Underwood on “L.A. Law”; Jesse L. Martin and S. Epatha Merkerson on “Law & Order”; Ice-T on “Law & Order: SVU”; Wanda Sykes on “The New Adventures of Old Christine”; Eriq La Salle on “ER”; Chandra Wilson on “Grey’s Anatomy”; Penny Johnson on “Castle”; Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams and Sonja Sohn on “The Wire”; Taye Diggs on “Private Practice” ...
All those characters are considered pretty, smooth, smart and in charge. Perhaps in overcompensation for past stereotyping, networks appear to have trouble creating vulnerable black characters.
But awkwardness can make a character accessible. Feeling awkward, Rae says, “is a very human element. I think that’s what helps so many people feel related to J, despite the fact that she is black.”
As someone named Juna wrote on Awkwardblackgirl.com: “Enjoying this very much, and I’m an old white woman. Great job!!!!”
She isn’t alone. Within weeks of the show’s launch in 2011, Internet users flooded ABG’s Web site. When Rae ran out of her own money to produce the show, she set up a Kickstarter campaign that raised $56,000 in donations to finish Season 1.
In March, “The Misadventures Awkward Black Girl” beat out 700 competitors to be named best Web show by the Shorty Awards, which honor Internet content. Rae was interviewed on NPR, and the series was reviewed in the New York Times, which called it “full of sharp, pointillist humor that’s extremely refreshing.”
Last month, Rae was honored for being a change leader at the Congressional Black Caucus’s “Evening of Excellence,” along with some pretty impressive companions: actress Alfre Woodard; Xavier University President Norman C. Francis; and Alabama A&M University President Andrew Hugine Jr.
And now Rae, at 27, is perched on the springboard to stardom. HBO is calling. Television executives have become suitors, salivating. They see something rich and original. (UPDATE: Click here for more about Rae’s new network television deal with ABC.)
As Rae considers offers from several traditional and cable networks proposing to develop the show, she will have to wrestle with the larger questions that come with potential fame: How much must she or the main character compromise to meet the demands of playing in a bigger pond? Will she bend to television executives’ demands to cast a more glamorous actress as the lead character? If so, will she lose her dedicated fan base, which identifies with the plain, socially awkward J, who finds herself in situations you thought happened only to you: attending an office “team-building” session where someone reveals one of your secrets; wondering who keeps stealing your stapler; rapping in your car only to see a co-worker stopped in the next lane; regretting that you decided to dance at an office party (“In my mind,” J says, “I’m the best dancer ever”).
And who hasn’t felt the unsociable impulse to avoid a colleague in the parking lot?
“I like to pretend to look for important things in my car,” says J.
Back on the set.
“One more time, Issa,” director Shea William Vanderpoort yells.
Impatient viewers have no idea how many takes, how many people and how many hours go into producing one short, 10-to-15-minute episode.
“People online think, ‘Why do they only put an episode out once a month? And why is it only 15 minutes long?’ ” says Kyle Ward, the script supervisor. “But there is so much work and only a few of us here.”
At 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, thousands of viewers wait for the latest episode to be uploaded to YouTube’s new I Am Other channel. If it’s a moment late, they give Rae grief — not realizing she heads a small crew with day jobs who work into the wee hours and produces episodes on a tiny budget and spare change, using friends’ apartments for sets, casting actors who follow her on Twitter.
Rae received $150,000 to produce Season 2 from I Am Other, which was created by hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams and is dedicated to “thinkers, innovators and outcasts.” Rae also makes money from selling merchandise such as T-shirts, logo decals, wristbands and episode jingle downloads on her “Awkward Black Girl” Web site.
Who is this woman behind what some viewers call a revolution? Is she as awkward as her character?
Well, yes, sometimes.
The door slams. “Jay! I’m about to break that — ” Rae yells. “[Expletive.] What is it?”
“Back,” the script supervisor yells.
Action. Still rolling.
This time, the apartment door doesn’t open. J is nowhere to be seen.
It turns out Rae can’t hear the call for action over the noise outside on the balcony.
She peeks into the set.
“Did you say action?”
This time, the door opens before the director says action.
Action, someone yells louder.
Door opens. Then slams.
J’s purse gets caught on the doorknob.
Cameras still rolling
Quiet on the set.
“Jay! I’m about to break that baaaack. You are not ready for this.”
Three men appear in the kitchen.
One yells: “... she’s a keeper!”
That’s a cut.
Rae says she has two things to thank for her awkwardness: her mother and the family’s move from Potomac to Los Angeles.
Her mother, a French teacher from Louisiana, is “the original awkward black girl,” Rae says. “She “is just socially awkward. She just does weird stuff,” such as leading the family into the wrong funeral service. Late!
“It was the worst moment ever,” Rae recalls. “We walk into this funeral mid-prayer. Everybody turns to look at us because the whole family came. We make a big commotion to sit down.”
Then,“my little brother taps me and points to the program.” They look up and notice that nobody in the funeral is familiar.
“We don’t see anybody we know. Like, ‘Mom, where is Auntie Gloria, whose son it was that had passed?’ ”
Her mother stage whispers, “Psssst!” and motions for the family to move out. They excuse themselves again. “People are shaking their heads at us.”
Rae was born in Los Angeles, the middle child of five. The family spent 21 / 2 years in her father’s homeland, Senegal, where he, a pediatrician, tried to establish a hospital. When the attempt failed, they moved to Potomac, where they had friends.
“It was like living in a Saturday-morning ‘Saved by the Bell,’” Rae recalls. “I had friends from every ethnicity. I went to a gifted and talented school [Cold Spring Elementary]with a bunch of nerds. It was great.”
Her years in Potomac seem to provide a touchstone for her. Being black there was easy, she wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post about racial identification. “I never really had to put much thought into my race and neither did anybody else. I knew I was black. I knew there was a history that accompanied my skin color and my parents taught me to be proud of it. End of story.”
Even her hair was a matter of pride when she lived in Potomac, she said in a piece written for Transitioning Movement, an offshoot of the beauty Web site Carolsdaughter.com. Having ethnically diverse friends “was great for my self-esteem. I was celebrated for being different; for having superhero hair that defied gravity and recoiled with lightning speed elasticity. My hair texture was the subject of awe, confusion and probably envy. I loved it.”
After she completed fifth grade, however, Rae’s family moved back to Los Angeles, settling in an affluent neighborhood of black families.
“I remember being excited about the house we were going to buy in California because it was significantly bigger, and I felt like we were going to have a bigger life,” Rae says now.
Instead, life got smaller, and, as Rae wrote for the Huffington Post, “my blackness was constantly questioned.” The challenges stemmed from whether she knew enough about hip-hop, for example, or from her choices to join the swim team and be a vegetarian.
“Who I was was not acceptable to black L.A. youth: the way I spoke and my sense of humor,” Rae says in an interview. “Everybody else had relaxers and pressed hair. I wore my hair in an Afro puff. Nappy. The way I dressed. It was all about name brands at the time in L.A. I had no idea. All those things, I failed miserably at.”
The awkwardness did not abate after she switched to a private school. At her new school, “among white kids, I tried to be blacker. I tried to talk like a black rapper like I was in the ’hood. I wrote my essay in ebonics and turned it in.”
But her teachers were open-minded. “They said, ‘You are writing as a character.’ ”
Rae didn’t see the humor in it until much later.
“I was in a world of my own. I used to love being the class clown. I loved to make jokes and make people laugh. There was a set of students who would find it funny. But the cool students were like, ‘Eeew!’ ”
She went to Stanford University to study political science but switched her major to African American studies. Since seeing “Love & Basketball” while in high school, Rae had been in love with the idea of filmmaking. At Stanford, she and friend Tracy Oliver, who plays Nina on “ABG,” wrote a screenplay their sophomore year, submitting it to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and becoming semifinalists. “It really validated my writing.” She studied at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles for a few weeks in her junior year. In 2007, her senior year, she created an Internet series called “Dorm Diaries,” which captured what it was like being black at an elite school. The series was a viral hit at universities across the country.
After graduation, Rae took a theater fellowship in New York. She was on Facebook there one day when “it came to me I was awkward and black. I thought the combination was funny. ... I wrote it as my Facebook status: I’m awkward and black.”
Oliver’s comment on the status was, “Awkward and black are the two worst things a person could be.”
Rae thought about using the concept for a line of T-shirts. Then, the idea of a series came to her.
She wanted it to be like “Seinfeld” and “30 Rock,” “Arrested Development” and “Parks and Recreation,” but also to reflect her.
“All those shows have these universally relatable characters,” she says, but “the default to relatable is white. I thought, ‘Why can’t we have a character who is relatable that happens to be black?’ ”
In 2010, after Rae returned to Los Angeles, a friend sent her an opinion piece from Clutch magazine that asked, “Where’s the black version of Liz Lemon?” (Tina Fey’s character on “30 Rock”). Rae knew she had to act.
She wrote the first episode as an outline. There was no script. She taught her best friend to hold a camera and point. One early episode was filmed by her little brother.
As soon as she finished episodes, she would post them on YouTube, without considering what others thought. “It was just me, writing and directing, and it was just my expectations,” she says. It was liberating.
She wrote all the time, in coffee shops, anywhere where there was noise, happy that her content was out there and the feedback from viewers was positive. She would read all the comments, incorporating the thoughtful ones into her next episodes.
Rae began to build a collection of characters based on her pet peeves — including a co-worker who talks so low that people have to lean in to hear what he is saying, a woman who constantly coughs on other people, and the Boss Lady, a caricature of one of her elementary school teachers. The Boss Lady, who is white, wears her hair braided and peppers her speech with ebonics.
“She thinks she is hip to it and sensitive to what we are going through,” Rae explains. “In reality, she is really obnoxious.”
In the episode “The Job,” J explains to the audience that she is working at Gutbuster, a fictional company that sells diet pills. The boss, Rae says, is an “overly-PC liberal, health-crazed overeater. She is fascinated by all things ‘exotic.’ ”
The Boss Lady: “Oh. My. God! Your hair! I go out of town for one month and I come back and it’s like — Did it shrink? Do you wash it? Can you wash it? Girlfriend, how are we going to go get cornrows now? Why did you change it? Oh, it’s Black History Month. Is that how your ancestors wore it? ... ”
The camera cuts to J’s voice-over: “Situations like these make me angry and uncomfortable. I would love to express that to her.”
But J resists, until the boss asks: “Can I touch it?”
And a startled J accidentally slaps her boss in the nose.
An Awkward Freeze Frame follows.
Not all the characters on the show are clueless. J’s best friend is CeCe, whom she bonds with after an excruciatingly awkward encounter in the hallway.
J says in a voice-over: “Long hallways are the epitome of discomfort. I’ve already said hi to this woman. What other interaction could we possibly have?”
As CeCe, played by Sujata Day, approaches, also clearly uncomfortable, J realizes that her co-worker is as awkward as she is. “This,” she muses, “could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The next episode shows “awkward soul mates” J and CeCe in their pajamas, rapping.
J: “Who woulda thought, black and Indian would blend? Our recipe of friendship: curry fried chicken. ... We make a good team. I’m ‘Saved by the Bell’ and you’re. ...”
“ ‘California Dreams,’ ” CeCe fills in.
They high-five and crack up.
J has found happiness.
Real life has not all been high-fives and awkward happiness. Success has brought out haters.
In March, after “Awkward Black Girl” won the Shorty Award, racist supporters of another show started tweeting that they couldn’t believe it “lost to a niggerette.”
At first, Rae was amused and retweeted the comments. Then she saw a tweet that read “#ThingsBetterThanAwkwardBlackGirl The smell coming from Treyvon [sic] Martin.”
That one prompted Rae to write a response on xoJane.com.
She noted that she had never been called the n-word in person, but online, “the word is tossed about as freely as it was in the 50s and 60s.”
She wrote about why she had come up with “ABG”: “I wanted to create a character who was racially specific, but who goes through universally uncomfortable social situations, so you’re forced to relate to her, no matter what color you are.
“But ... some people can’t get past the ‘black’ in the title.”
She closed with: “All in all, I just want to thank the sore losers for promoting ... our web series and most importantly, for causing it to exist. Because of your ignorance and extremism, you’ve made it possible for us to succeed. You’ve actually made people grateful that a show like this exists to combat what you do.”
Even with success, Rae says she doesn’t feel like a rising star. “I just feel weird. It’s very, very odd. I’m very much flattered, but at the same time it’s just me.”
Rae is sitting in the living room of the duplex apartment she rents from her grandmother for $350 a month. A breeze blows through the windows, covered by red sheets. Outside an ice cream truck drives up and down the street whining music. Periodically, the truck’s mechanical voice yells “Hello,” almost mockingly.
Rae laughs. She’s sleepy from filming the episode the night before. But she has to finish her online “Awkward Black Girl” newsletter. She just finished a new Web series “Roomieloverfriends,” about the complications of sleeping with your roommate, her collaboration with Black&Sexy. TV, an online network. She is on another deadline, for a show that a top television producer wants her to develop. (UPDATE: Click here for more about Rae’s new network television deal with ABC.)
This afternoon, she says, she fell asleep on her sofa and woke from a nightmare. In the dream, she was sitting in the conference room with the producer. “I had submitted my draft of my project. I made my pitch. I told them this is incomplete right now, but I just wanted to pitch my ideas. They were all extremely disappointed. The assistant — of all people — was like, ‘We expected more of you.’
“I was on the verge of tears. I kept saying, ‘If you give me until tomorrow, I can do this right. I can come correct.’ Then I woke up. It was still a dream. I was thankful I still had a day left to complete it.”
She plans to go to Starbucks, where there is noise, to finish writing the proposal. Her boyfriend, Louis Diame, 29, a student, teases her that she is still stuck in college mode, where she needs to be around other people to study. (Diame appeared briefly in Episode 7 when White Jay and J go out to dinner. He played a black man who was on a date with a white woman, but was looking at J with disapproval for being with a white man.)
As for “ABG,” the second season ends in February. After that, who knows? She’s talking to several networks about moving it to television or cable. “I really want a good home for it on cable,” she says. “I haven’t made a decision yet, but I’m pursuing other opportunities in network television.”
Her fans, she says, are excited but worried.
“Some people say, ‘We need this on television. It will send a message there is an audience for this.’ But some fans say, ‘No, if it goes to television, it will get changed.’ ”
And the pressure to change is real. One “non-black” executive assured Rae that he understood her character, then started rattling off how J would have to evolve if his company bought the series. He suggests casting a video-vixen type of actress.
But, as Rae likes to point out, “I’m not a smooth, sexy, long-haired vixen.” Nor, she adds, is she any of the other television cliches, such as “a large, sassy black woman, an angry post office employee.”
Says Rae: “I’m an awkward black girl, and I’m not alone.”
Back on the set, this time in Rae’s apartment to film the rest of the episode fans have been waiting for.
Lyman Johnson, 27, who plays White Jay, is waiting on the brown suede sofa in Rae’s real living room. He says he got the role when a mutual friend told him that Rae was looking for “an awkward white guy. My friend said, ‘Oh, I know just the guy you should talk to.’ How flattering!”
He laughs. Johnson, too, is finding fame. People have stopped him on the streets in L.A. and asked him: “Aren’t you White Jay?”
The director is ready.
Johnson leaves the sofa and heads for Rae’s real bedroom.
Rae is already under the red sheets.
The camera crew piles into the room. They shut the windows, blocking the sound of banda music spilling from a house party down the street.
Rae feigns sleep, then awakes and rolls over. “Are you cooking me breakfast?” she asks White Jay, who is in the doorway.
White Jay comes bouncing into the room: “Hello, my baby. Hello, my baby.”
J: “You are a fool.”
White Jay, in a Yogi Bear-like accent: “I’m just a fool that wants to boogie with his boo. Let’s get it on.”
J, finding this exchange a bit, well, awkward, thinks to herself: “This [expletive] is cheesy as [expletive], but sometimes you have to let a man be a man.”
An awkward voice-over that crosses color lines.