It was worse than Jim Crow! It was better than Cats! Now that we've said everything that could possibly be said about blockbuster movie The Help, can we turn our attention to another representation of black female life in America? I'm going to go out on a limb here and vote for a portrayal of a black woman in this century, who is not Beyoncé, not Precious, not a video vixen draped over the side of a yacht, and not a sitcom sidekick whose primary role is to act "sassy." I'm voting for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
You won't find Awkward Black Girl at the local multiplex or on the networks. That may be because its protagonist isn't serving fried chicken in a Southern mansion or serving up a sistah-girlfriend head roll by the water cooler. Instead, this series is setting the web TV world on fire by delivering stomach-splitting comedy worthy of Chappelle's Show devotion. More than that, the show is doing on a shoestring budget what no one in Hollywood is willing to pay a black woman good money to do: tell her own story on her own terms. And starting this weekend, if you're lucky, Awkward Black Girl may be coming live to a city near you.
Awkward Black Girl is the alter ego of writer/actress/director/producer Issa Rae, who is the show's star. In real life, Rae is a California girl by way of parents from Senegal and Louisiana; her sensibility is a cross between Amy Poehler, Spike Lee and Angela Chase, the angst-ridden teen misfit from the cult TV drama My So-Called Life. On the show, Rae's character is "J," a 20-something salesperson peddling weight-loss products from a low-slung office building. And J's got some angst of her own to deal with -- like what the protocol is when you pass the same coworker in a narrow hallway for the fifth time, or how to deal with a boss who truly believes selling GutBusters is a higher calling. Or what to do when, even though you love sushi just like all your other friends, the first white guy who asks you out takes you to a soul food restaurant and orders the jambalaya. Right before your black ex-boyfriend shows up. With his new girlfriend. Who thinks she's Mariah Carey and breaks into song at your table.
With just nine episodes in the can, Rae's YouTube nuggets have won legions of followers. Earlier this year, when her series hit financial skids and she turned to online fundraising platform Kickstarter, Rae doubled her $30,000 goal in one month. The list of colleges and universities clamoring for a date on her college tour is at 130 and counting. (The tour opens at the University of Virginia Saturday, Oct. 17.) Lately, Rae can be found expounding on awkwardness on NPR and CNN -- a level of interest she said she never contemplated when she started filming.
"I honestly just thought it was going to be appreciated by family and friends," said Rae, a film-school grad and self-described TV junkie. "I'm always wondering, you know, how many times do you have to pass by someone before you're allowed to stare at the wall? How do you tell someone you really want your stapler back without sounding like you're cheap? But I was convinced I couldn't be the only one who was like that."
It's the Awkward, not the Black, that gives Awkward Black Girl its comedic center and its ability to transcend race. To hear Rae tell it, she's been awkward for a long time. In her predominantly black L.A. school, she was the "Oreo," the nerdy girl who acted too white (even if her hair, which she kept natural after most girls had straightened theirs, was evidently too black). A lot of black kids in that situation would cave and start dressing and talking differently, and Rae did that. Rae also walked into English class one day and handed in an entire project written in Ebonics.
"It was mortifying. I was literally just trying to prove that I was black," Rae said. Despite much begging, Rae declined to recite any portion of the project for this blogger. "That thing will never see the light of day again."
So, eternally awkward, yes. But with this show, Rae is also making a radical statement about race and gender in the entertainment industry. How is she doing that? Just by writing in a complex, specific way about what it means to be a black woman in America in 2011, and putting what she writes on camera for others to see. J writes rap lyrics in her bedroom and likes arty films. J has unfortunate sex with the office geek, then eventually finds both the cool black guy and the cool white guy vying for her affection. J's white boss is a clueless bigot, but so is the vaguely multiracial coworker in her office.
In other words, Rae is giving audiences a powerful antidote to the tired Hollywood formula that gets trotted out year after year, with yet another black character serving as the vehicle for yet another white hero. (See The Help, The Blind Side, Invictus, Blood Diamond, Amistad, The Green Mile, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, A Time to Kill, Cry Freedom, and Glory, to name 12). If the statistics are any indication, the so-called post-racial era thus far has not been all that kind to black actors: According to the Screen Actors
Guild, film and TV roles for blacks have shrunk in the last decade, from 15 to 13 percent.
"The fact that this is basically the only type of movie Hollywood wants to make for us is so infuriating," Rae said. "I refuse to support those types of movies for that reason."
Over the weekend, The Help moved on to take over Europe, with its stars hitting the red carpet at premieres in the UK and Germany. There may not be any red-carpet walks in Rae's future, but this week, in Episode 9, you can find her getting caught sleeping at her desk by her catty supervisor, who asks if she stayed up late crying on Match.com. And later, under the graying panels of a conference room drop ceiling, getting kudos from her white boss, who praises an ad poster she designed for a Gutbuster colon cleanse by calling it "hecka dope."
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