Five years ago, HBO greenlit Lena Dunham's "Girls," betting that the romantic misadventures of an educated, upper-middle-class twentysomething white girl and her friends were resonant enough to offer their stories to subscribers. "Girls" wrapped up its fourth season earlier this year.
Last December, HBO greenlit Issa Rae's "Insecure," about the romantic misadventures of an educated, upper-middle-class twentysomething black girl. According to a new NY Times profile, Rae still has yet to announce any cast members for the show other than herself as the lead, though (we have been told) the casting process is underway. The Times reporter notes in the profile that the network had "little interest" in hiring the young women of color Rae wanted for her writers and producers, citing lack of experience. (Update: Rae's publicist, in contrast to the NY Times piece, says that HBO is "EXTREMELY supportive of Issa hiring young people, women, and people of color."
HBO put "Insecure" into development after Rae's viral web series, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," proved an undeniable hit. The first episode alone has been seen nearly two million times. Rae also has going for her a fresh and specific vision for her show -- a portrait of daily life and dating mishaps based on her own experience of being a black self-conscious introvert -- and stalwart collaborators in experienced showrunner Prentice Penny and pilot director Melina Matsoukas (who is a woman of color and getting her first TV job here).
"Insecure" has been greenlit for a pilot, but has yet to receive a series order. So what's the hold up? Yes, TV development can be a long process. But it's been a long road for Rae, too, since Hollywood in general doesn't think of her experiences as "universal" enough for audiences. In other words, Rae's riffs on her own life are "too black," or possibly "too black while also being female." Earlier offers to adapt "Awkward Black Girl" wanted to de-racialize the project by making it into a "pan-racial franchise operation, starting with 'Awkward Indian Boy.'" One TV exec wanted to recast the lead role with a "lighter-skinned actress with long, straight hair."
‘‘How hard is it to portray a three-dimensional woman of color on television or in film?’’ wondered Rae in her book, also titled "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." ‘‘I’m surrounded by them. They’re my friends. I talk to them every day. How come Hollywood won’t acknowledge us? Are we a joke to them?’’
We hope it's true that HBO is enthusiastic about Rae bringing newer and fresher voices on board, since the network has an abysmal track record of hiring women writers and creators of color. We know that viewers do need not be hand-held by a white male center or point of view; audiences can relate to any character or situation if a story is told well enough. (Hello, the most popular show in HBO's history involves dragons.) Also, the new trend in TV -- following the astronomic success of "Empire" and the takeover of ABC by Shonda Rhimes -- is supposed to be diversity. So many viewers want something different, something that speaks to them, even if it doesn't mimic their own exact experience.
According to the Times profile, Rae grew up on black-centered '90s TV shows, which were more plentiful then. ‘‘When I was in [Maryland] as the sole black girl, these shows were my access to black culture in some ways,’’ she recalled in her memoir. ‘‘When I moved to Los Angeles, and the kids said I talked white but had nappy hair, I found a sort of solace in knowing that Freddie from ‘A Different World’ and Synclaire from ‘Living Single’ were napped out, too.’’
Three-dimensional representations of black life were Rae's lifeline, but they're something she's had trouble launching twenty years later. Experience, stories, partners, a built-in audience, talent to spare -- Rae has it all. If only she could finally convince TV executives that she deserves to tell the stories that people want to hear.