With a plethora of Black faces on TV and in films in everything from HBO’s I May Destroy You to FX’s Pose and OWN’s Queen Sugar, it seems unimaginable that just a decade ago, there were almost no Black or brown faces on the big and small screens. Growing up watching a plethora of series like Living Single and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and seeing movies like Love & Basketball and Friday Issa Rae found herself baffled by the lack of representation in the 2010s, so she decided to do something about it.
One year before Kerry Washington introduced us to Olivia Pope, Rae gave us a witty, refreshing, and unique depiction of Black women on-screen. The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl debuted on YouTube in 2011 and immediately swept across the internet like wildfire. The series garnered die-hard fans, critical acclaim, and a Shorty Award.
From there, the actor, creator, writer, and producer has become a household name. Her success has only skyrocketed with her acclaimed HBO series, Insecure, which is loosely based on Awkward Black Girl. Rae is also a sought after leading lady with roles in films like The Photograph and The Hate U Give. With Insecure, she was the first black woman to create and star in a premium cable series.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Awkward Black Girl, Rae spoke to Shadow and Act about the series that started it all, and where she’s headed next.
“I just wanted to create a character that I could relate to because I was really frustrated with not seeing representation of my friends and my family members on-screen,” Rae explains. “I was complaining a lot, and someone on my blog was just like, ‘You complain a lot, why don’t you make something?’ That was the impetus for me to stop making excuses about this character and just create it.”
Though Rae was eager to bring J’s world to life, it was her friend and fellow Standford alum, Girls Trip, and Little scribe Tracy Oliver that gave her the push she needed. “Tracy and I wrote together in college, and she’s always been supportive and just lit a fire under my ass to take writing seriously,” Rae says. “When I put out Awkward Black Girl, she called me, and she was like, ‘Girl, this is good.’ I was like, ‘Really? Well, do you want to be in the second episode?’ So I cast her as my nemesis, which was hilarious, but she obviously killed it and enjoyed it. I credit her with really helping to legitimize the show. She was like, you need to do this for real. She saw the little papers that I was writing my scripts on and the format. She was like, ‘First of all, you need to write it in real script format.’ By the fourth episode, she’d brought on this amazing crew that was donating their time, and she became a producer of the series. I would not have been able to make it legitimate without her. There’s no doubt.”
Rae has played a pivotal role in reshaping the Black image on-screen in the present day, but holding that title feels a bit overwhelming for her even 10 years later. “Calling myself a trailblazer feels uncomfortable,” she reflects. “It’s not like I had a clear path. I definitely had the opportunity to have a TV show before Insecure and failed. I don’t want anybody to think it was easy by any means. I think it was just a matter of not giving up and also being confident that Awkward Black Girl wasn’t my only good idea.”
After Awkward Black Girl, it was important for Rae to embark on the next chapter, even when Hollywood attempted to box her in. “I just felt like I had done 24 episodes of Awkward Black Girl online. I had told that story,” she explains. “The opportunity with HBO was an opportunity to tell more of my story and my experiences and to tell a more grownup story. I jumped at that chance. I still believe strongly that web series and online content, in general, can break you into Hollywood when you’re not necessarily invited. You’ve seen that with people like LaLa Milan on Twenties and King Bach who has broken into movies and television shows.”
More than anything, Rae still clutches on to a life lesson that she was taught amid Awkward Black Girl’s creation. “Starting is important,” she says. “That is it. You can talk about what you want to do, but until you do it, it does not matter. And, it does not have to be perfect. For me, it was just like, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be the way I want it to be. If I start now, I don’t have enough money to get the quality that I want. I could have talked myself out of it all day, and it wasn’t until I just finally started that things changed. So for me, that’s been so important to anything that I do. Figure out how to just start and then go from there.”
It’s also important for Rae to consider all that has changed in the entertainment industry for Black women. “We drive so much of what the conversation is,” she says. “When you have us we’re loyal. Shonda Rhimes has been such a huge inspiration to me as far as, how she’s been able to take over the television industry from ABC to now Netflix. Scandal, without a doubt, inspired what I wanted for Insecure. I wanted to dominate those conversations on social media. I loved being a part of Scandal Thursdays, online, speculating, and that would not be possible without Black women driving those conversations.”
10 years after introducing us to Awkward Black Girl, Rae is set to close another chapter in her story. After the forthcoming fifth season of Insecure, we will say goodbye to our favorite LA besties Issa and Molly (Yvonne Orji) forever. For Rae, it will be a new opportunity to start again and to decide what’s next. “I’m actually just trying to figure that out,” she said. “For me, it’s building out the business side of it. I really want to make sure that I have roots here, and that’s on the television and film production side. I want to have a studio. I want to have longevity here. I think it’s planting the seeds or at least watering the little sprouts that have grown over the last 10 years and making sure that they’re just rooted any way that I can. I see myself focusing on the different businesses that I’ve started over time.”
Issa Rae and Hooray Digital will host a watch party of The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl beginning this Wednesday, Feb 3rd at 5:30 p.m. PST/ 8:30 p.m. EST on Issa Rae Presents Youtube channel.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide