Issa Rae Diop (1985- ), better known as Issa Rae, is a Black American television producer, writer and director. She is best known for “Awkward Black Girl” (2011), which went viral on YouTube a few years back. She is now working on the television show “Insecure” for HBO, still in development. The main character is loosely based on her.
“Awkward Black Girl” was a workplace comedy where she played the main character, J. It was not just funny, it not only put people of colour centre stage, but it did not present them as stereotypes. Hollywood allows Black women to be “sassy”, angry, oversexed, matriarchal, tragic or even magical, but not awkward. Zora Neale Hurston said Hollywood saw people of colour as “made of bent wires without insides at all”. Not so Rae, with her heavy use of voice-overs.
In part she was reacting to “Precious” (2009). But mostly it grew out of her picture of Blacks not as Other or non-White but as people in their own right, whose lives matter apart from White people.
Enter Hollywood: After “Awkward Black Girl” went viral, Hollywood wanted to make it into a television show. A dream come true! But they wanted to water it down, like by making it “pan-racial” or by making the main character light-skinned with long, straight hair – the opposite of Issa Rae’s J!
In 2012, she hooked up with Shonda Rhimes, then mainly known for “Grey’s Anatomy” (2005- ). Rhimes was going to help her make “I Hate L.A. Dudes”, but that fell through: Rae herself had watered down the script, which made no one happy since it was no longer funny.
Now, in 2015, she is with HBO working on “Insecure”. HBO is known for giving producers more freedom, but even they wanted to push their own “experienced” people on her, while she wanted people of colour who understood where she was coming from. HBO apparently backed off, but she still had to find a showrunner who understands both Hollywood and where she is coming from – a rare thing in a Hollywood that is still a White man’s world.
To help make Hollywood less White, she works on Color Creative, where she helps writers of colour produce Web shows and showcase their talent.
Her parents met while they were studying in France. Her mother is from Louisiana, her father, a doctor, is from Senegal. She grew up in well-to-do neighbourhoods in Dakar, Senegal, in (White) Potomac, Maryland and, most of all, in (Black) South Los Angeles (aka South Central), where “Awkward Black Girl” is shot. At White private schools she stood out because she was Black. At Black and Latino public schools she was mocked for acting too “White”.
At Stanford University she made “Dorm Diaries”, a sort of all-Black “Real World”. When she was working on pitching it to MTV and BET, her place was robbed. She lost everything, not just her cameras, but even her scripts. She was deep in debt. But then she got the idea for “Awkward Black Girl”.
– Abagond, 2015.
Sources: Mainly New York Times magazine (2015).
- Awkward Black Girl
- Toni Morrison on the White gaze