Issa Rae Turns Basic Into Revolutionary With 'Insecure'

Oct 7, 2016
Originally published on October 7, 2016 12:35 pm

Issa Rae knows she is committing a revolutionary act by simply creating a TV show centered on an average black woman's life.

And she can't believe it.

"Isn't it sad that it's revolutionary?" says Rae, whose new comedy Insecure, debuts on HBO Sunday night. "It's so basic ... but we don't get to do that. We don't get to just have a show about regular black people being basic."

Rae will actually make history Sunday, as the first black woman to create and star in a scripted series for the premium cable channel (she's the second black women to do it in primetime TV, behind Wanda Sykes, who created Wanda At Large for Fox in 2003).

And the 31-year-old star is well on her way to redefining how black women are depicted on TV — just by being true to herself.

Look at high-profile TV shows that star black women these days, and you see a high-powered Washington fixer on Scandal, a high-powered lawyer on How to Get Away with Murder and a high-powered music executive on Empire.

But Insecure features Rae as a regular 29-year-old, also named Issa. She works for a non profit group helping at risk kids, but struggles to reach them in the classroom. That struggle especially stands out in one scene, where she explains her group's programs and they ask her: "Why you talk like a white girl?"

Her response — "You caught me! I'm rocking blackface!" — horrifies a nearby adult who says under her breath "that's racist."

But that's the kind of awkward tension Insecure thrives on. In one scene, Issa passively rebels against white co-workers who quiz her on black slang by pretending she doesn't know what they're talking about.

In another scene, her habit of letting off steam by freestyling rap lyrics — rhyming to herself while standing in from of her bathroom mirror — goes horribly awry when she starts rapping about her birthday.

"Go shawty. It's my birthday. But no one cares because I'm not having a party. Because I'm feeling sorry for myself."

Rae says she's not looking to present a series about the burdens of blackness. Instead, she's trying to capture what's unique and universal about life for average young black folks.

"In my storytelling, I'm just more interested in the basicness of human life," she says. "Like, the regular human interactions that we have."

Rae says she hasn't seen a TV show starring a black woman she could relate to since the late 1990s. Back then, she was living in Maryland and pop singer Brandy Norwood was playing a teen living in South Central Los Angeles in the sitcom Moesha.

"I think Moesha is the last show where I remember [thinking] 'Oh, this is just a regular black girl.'" Rae says. "She was in the Leimert Park [neighborhood], she was going to high school; she was like a regular girl. I moved back to LA and went to a taping of that show and had a script and used that script as the format for all my other scripts."

Rae made videos as a student at Stanford University. She created a video series called Dorm Diaries that was a mockumentary about, well, being black at Stanford.

But her career took off after college when she created the Awkward Black Girl series on YouTube in 2011. The show features Issa Rae as J, a twentysomething girl in a dead end job who know she has a problem.

"Let me introduce myself," she says in the first episode. "My name is J. And I'm awkward. And Black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone could be. That someone was right."

Issa Rae explains the awkwardness of this character by referencing noted civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois and his idea of "double consciousness."

That's the concept that marginalized groups in society — like black people in America — have to balance who they are with the way the larger society perceives them. Like the moment in an Awkward Black Girl episode, when J's boss discovers she cut her hair.

"Oh my God, your hair!" she gushes. "I go out of town for one month and I come back, and it's like ... Did it shrink? Do you wash it? Why did you change it? Is that how your ancestors wore it?"

The scene ends when the boss tries to touch her hair and J slaps her.

"That's something that's also present in [Insecure]," Rae says. "Just constantly being aware of how you're being perceived ... what you're doing to represent yourself ... It's that constant introspection of being black and being uncomfortable with how you're viewed or how you're perceived to be viewed."

The web series went viral and Rae saw her fame rise (she included a shoutout to NPR's Morning Edition in an online video promoting her bestselling book, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, where she pronounced the show's theme song as "my m-----f----- jam.").

And in 2013, HBO came calling. Rae worked with Larry Wilmore, star of the recently canceled late night program The Nightly Show to develop a pilot script and create the series together.

Rae insists that Insecure is a separate animal from Awkward Black Girl. But they share a lot of comedy DNA — from similar jokes about the lead character's struggles in romance and at work, to the spare, unglamourous look of the cinematography.

Insecure's showrunner Prentice Penny — a veteran of series like Girlfriends and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — says Rae is trying to get people to think about complex social issues at a time when emotions are raw over topics of race and culture.

"Everybody's kind of entrenched in positions and we aren't willing to engage in ... a conversation," he told a recent press conference. "I think what Issa has done smartly — and we tried to bring into the show — was to poke fun at these things. But hopefully they can just start a conversation."

That conversation can be raw. Issa and her best friend Molly call each other the b-word often and sling the n-word occasionally as well. But Insecure seems to be the female-oriented flip side of FX's new comedy from Donald Glover about two guys struggling to make it in the rap game, Atlanta.

Both shows let viewers really see how young black people talk to other when no one else is watching.

It's intimate and authentic. And Issa Rae's use of small stories to tell universal truths, turns Insecure into a major TV triumph.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The actress, writer and producer Issa Rae has a soft spot for NPR. The online video promoting her best-selling book, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" includes a shoutout to a certain morning news show that she listens to while driving.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

ISSA RAE: NPR's MORNING EDITION theme is my [expletive] jam.

GREENE: On Sunday, Issa Rae debuts her new show. It is a comedy called "Insecure." And it's on HBO. She'll be the first black woman to create and star in a scripted series for that premium cable channel. NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans, says the 31-year-old star is really redefining how black women are depicted on TV just by being true to herself.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Issa Rae knows she's committing a revolutionary act in simply creating a TV show centered on an average black woman's life. And she can't believe it.

RAE: Isn't it sad that it's revolutionary, though? It's - we don't get to do that. We don't get to, like, just have a show about regular black people being basic.

DEGGANS: Look at TV shows that star black women these days, and you see a high-powered Washington fixer on "Scandal," a high-powered lawyer on "How To Get Away With Murder" and a high-powered music executive on "Empire."

But "Insecure" features Rae as a regular 29-year-old also named Issa. She works for a nonprofit group that helps at-risk kids. But she struggles to reach them in the classroom, especially when they ask questions like...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As student) Why you talk like a white girl?

(LAUGHTER)

RAE: (As Issa) You caught me. I'm rocking blackface (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As teacher, whispering) That's racist.

DEGGANS: And things aren't much better at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

RAE: I've been here five years. And they think I'm the token with all the answers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As coworker) Issa, what's on fleek?

RAE: I don't know what that means.

I know what that means. But being aggressively passive is what I do best.

DEGGANS: Even the raps she writes at home to let off steam - spitting verses while profiling her bathroom mirror somehow falls short.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

RAE: (Singing) Go shawty (ph). It's my birthday. But no one cares because I'm not having a party because I'm feeling sorry for myself.

In my storytelling, I'm just more interested in the basicness (ph) of human life - like, the regular human interactions that we have.

DEGGANS: Rae says she hasn't seen a TV show starring a black woman she could relate to since the late 1990s. Back then, she was living in Maryland. And this theme song was in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOESHA THEME SONG")

BRANDY: (Singing) Mo to the E to the...

RAE: I mean, I think "Moesha" is the last show where I remember, oh, this is just a regular black girl, you know? And that was also - she was in Leimert Park. She was going to high school. She was, like, a regular girl. And I moved back to LA and went to a taping of that show and had a script and, like, used that script as a format for all my other scripts.

DEGGANS: Rae made videos as a student at Stanford University. She created a video series called "Dorm Diaries" that was a mockumentary about, well, being black at Stanford. But her career took off after college when she created the "Awkward Black Girl" series on YouTube in 2011. The show features Issa Rae as J, a 20-something girl in a dead end job with a particular problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "AWKWARD BLACK GIRL "THE STOP SIGN"")

RAE: (As J) Let me introduce myself. My name is J. And I'm awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone could be. That someone was right.

DEGGANS: Issa Rae explains the awkwardness of this character by referencing noted civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois and his idea of double consciousness. That's the concept that marginalized groups in society, like black people in America, have to balance who they are with the way the larger society perceives them, like this moment when J's boss discovers she cut her hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "AWKWARD BLACK GIRL "THE JOB"")

RAE: (As J) My boss is an idiot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: 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? Is that how your ancestors wore it?

RAE: Like a constant introspection of being black and being uncomfortable with how you're viewed, too, or how you're perceived to be viewed.

DEGGANS: The web series went viral. And in 2013, HBO came calling. Rae worked with Larry Wilmore, star of the recently canceled late-night program "The Nightly Show," to develop a pilot script and create the series together. "Insecure" showrunner Prentice Penny is a veteran of series like "Girlfriends" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." At a press conference, he said Issa Rae's trying to get people to think and talk about complex social issues at a time when emotions are raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRENTICE PENNY: Everybody's kind of entrenched in positions. And we aren't willing to engage in some sort of - just a conversation. I think what Issa has done smartly - and we try to bring it to the show - was to poke fun at these things. But, hopefully, they can just start a conversation.

DEGGANS: "Insecure" lets viewers really see how young black people, especially women, talk to each other when no one else is watching. It's intimate and authentic. And Issa Rae's use of small stories to tell these universal truths turns "Insecure" to a major TV triumph. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.