Q&A: An Awkward Conversation With Awkward Black Girl Creator Issa Rae
The moment when you finally meet someone you know only by way of the Internet can be, well, awkward. In some cases, that meeting is disastrous, because the real-life relationship pales in comparison to the Internet friendship. Other times, however, the in-person encounter strengthens the hunch that said person could actually be someone you have things in common with, beyond the laptop. As I hopped out of a cab and walked into Los Angeles’s Paper or Plastik Cafe on a hot afternoon in August, I wondered which I was headed for.
Having spent over a year watching the YouTube phenomenon The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, created, written, directed, produced, and starring 27-year-old Issa Rae as the lovably awkward “J,” and then exchanging e-mails for the past few months, I was banking on the fact that this young woman whose on-camera character and off-camera persona I connected with would ultimately be someone who, in real life, I connected with. Upon walking in and being put at ease by her similarly unprofessional attire and relaxed nature, it immediately felt as if we were about to have a conversation, instead of me conducting an interview. It was like we were new old friends. Or old new friends? Either way, it was good.
Issa Rae is the most talked-about young black filmmaker — male or female — currently working. She has developed a cultlike following for her show (now in its second season on Pharrell Williams’s iamOTHER YouTube channel), made herself the poster child for the previously unexamined “awkward black women” demographic, and figured out her lane without the help of those typically aligned with the black film world. Popular to some but still unknown to many, she’s already established herself as an important voice, lacking the cautiousness and fear of a seasoned veteran. Because of that, I knew we had to have a chat.
So the New York Times recently wrote about you and your show. When something like that happens, when the Awkward Black Girl brand, or just you, is introduced to a new audience, are you still surprised, or are you beginning to expect this type of growth?
Every single day I’m surprised. Every single day that somebody recognizes me, especially if they’re not black, and they’re just like, “Hey, I like your show,” my immediate reaction is “Hey, how did you find out about it? Who told you? That’s awesome.” It’s crazy, but at the same time I’m so pleased that this character isn’t just limited to black people. Because I hate that. Mainstream media has convinced people that black people aren’t relatable. So when a Jewish person comes up to me and is all “Oh man, I love that one scene from Episode 3, I watch it over and over again,” I’m so happy. Because that’s what I want.
Was that the goal from the beginning?
I didn’t have this master plan. I just wanted to put out my sense of humor and put my work out there. I didn’t even mean to start it, I just wanted to put my voice out there directly. That being said, I wanted to create someone relatable, that wasn’t just some limited archetype. So that was my goal.
What’s the process for each episode coming together?
I have three other writers and we all sit at someone’s house, eat food, talk mess, and then discuss the latest pop culture news, awkward moments in our lives, and then outline where we want the characters to go. Sometimes we’ll discuss episode feedback and see what we can do to improve. Beyond that, there are about 10 crew members, 11 cast members, and two editors who work to put the show together. This isn’t a full-time job for anyone, [but] everyone donates as much time as they can to the series.
Is the amount of time between each episode planned out way ahead of time or is it just whenever you can get them finished?
This season we have more of a luxury of planning and writing the episodes in advance, so we have a production schedule and a post-production schedule so that we can adhere to our release dates. Last season was torture, because the episode would be written the first week of the month, pre-produced the second week, shot the third week, edited the fourth week, and then posted the following week. So we’d constantly be working on ABG, every single day; barely making it on time.
One thing I think about a lot is black people on television and in film. The idea of the all-black cast fascinates me, especially in how that varies from show to show and decade to decade. And how in some cases, I’ll think, This is the best thing ever and in other cases, I’m cringing, thinking, I don’t want anyone to see this.
I know. It’s like, “Is everyone watching this?”
Exactly. So as someone who is in this industry, how does watching an all-black cast make you feel?
With Think Like a Man, I was like, “Oh, shoot, here we go, using the same recycled black actors, with a hint of new people,” but then I actually really enjoyed it. But even still, I feel like since the ’90s we haven’t moved past this one aesthetic. And I want to get past that. Past the [snaps fingers] “Ooooh, girl” portrayals.
I know so many people, myself definitely included, that had the same reaction about that film. People that were convinced to see Think Like a Man, and were pleasantly surprised by how much they liked it.
It was definitely a step in the right direction.
But I just remember seeing the poster before the film came out, seeing eight black folks and Turtle from Entourage and feeling nervous. I wasn’t excited. But then when I left the theater, elated and relieved, I was thinking to myself, Should I feel bad about all these unfortunate, borderline rude preconceived notions I had about the film?
Not really, because a lot of time it is … bad.
Yeah, so bad.
And I’m not going to lie, like even with Tyler Perry, he has the right to make movies, but he’ll get stellar actors and then in these movies, they’ll be shitty.
I’m still making myself see all his movies.
I mean, I don’t like them. I really don’t.
Do you feel an overwhelming desire to support? Is that it?
No. For me, I’m fascinated because he’s one of the most polarizing and successful people in a very long time. This man has all the money, so he can do whatever he wants, but there’s rarely any middle ground on Tyler Perry. I’ve never met someone that “kind of” likes Tyler Perry. I know black people that love him, black people that are embarrassed by him, white people that love him, and white people that are embarrassed by him. That’s a very rare thing to witness, someone who can split segments of the culture seemingly in half.
I feel like he’s had his time. Now, some people are slowly [starting to say], “I’m kind of over this now.” But he’s been running black film for about a decade now. Every black film feels like it’s Tyler Perry, and that just needs to stop. But people seem to slowly be looking for what else is out there — “Is there something else besides this type of humor?” “I’m tired of seeing men in dresses.” But because of Tyler Perry’s success, these are what studios are going after. These are the kind of films and this is the type of aesthetic that they think we love. So now, even with the success of Think Like a Man, I’m so worried that they’re going to think that this is the new formula.
Do you feel like Tyler Perry’s success has any impact on your current or future success?
Now, not so much. But if this was the mid-2000s, then yes. Because then, I feel like you had to go through him to be known. But unfortunately, with things, it’s a one-at-a-time world. One black dude at a time, one black woman at a time, one black type at a time. And it’s like, “Come on, can we please have some kind of variable?”
Not too long ago, I wrote about this one-at-a-time reality with regard to Anthony Mackie, because if you go through the past 20 years, there seems to be one black guy that the media and the studios gravitate to, to fill those “We need a black guy” roles. And he’s that guy in 2012.
It’s so true.
And if you look at this year, for example, Mackie has like five movies coming out. He’s never the headliner, but he’s always the fourth or fifth billed. He’s in next year’s Gangster Squad, and he’s not the star —
Oh yeah, he’s in that. He’s the black guy.
Yeah. But it’s interesting that there isn’t really a history of four black guys killing it at the same time.
We can’t have that. It’s too much. It’s too scary. But I want to be a part of changing that. Because in the ’90s it wasn’t too much and it wasn’t too scary. People felt so comfortable just watching Living Single or New York Undercover, but now studios are like, “Nope, we want to have diversity, so we’ll sprinkle in non-white people in a very particular way.” It’s so contrived.
It’s like a college brochure.
“Who are we missing? Where’s our Native American in a wheelchair?”
Let’s fill all the small niches, but not too much of one.
You mentioned the number of options for entertainment — I’m wondering about this idea of overexposure. You can hit people from 20 different angles in this world of social media, and by angle five, people are like, “I can’t handle you anymore.” Or at least I’m like “I can’t handle you anymore.” We all know the person that writes a blog post or puts something on YouTube, and then tweets it, throws it on Facebook, and sends you a LinkedIn message about it, and then leaves you a voice mail. It’s the worst. As someone who is creating content that you want people to see, how much do you think about this, the optimal speed at which your brand grows, and how do you control it?
I’m big on that. I don’t like to be overexposed. Too many articles, too many tweets, too many posts, I just don’t like that. But at the same time, we live in a culture where that’s almost necessary. People want content and they want their stuff when they want it. You know, even with the Awkward Black Girl episodes, they come out once a month. That’s great for me, it’s comfortable, it gives each time to digest, time for new people to get on to it and caught up, but oftentimes I have people who are almost demanding a higher output from me. They want it a week later, a few days later, and are confused when it doesn’t happen. But that’s our generation and how we work, everything needs to be fast and now, but I’m just so anti-that. Funny story: There was a girl, a stupid girl, who started a Twitter account just to hate on me, in part because I didn’t put out stuff enough. But would also tell me when she didn’t like my episodes.
That’s so awesome.
But even with a story like that, and the pressure, and the demands, I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing now 10 to 15 years ago.
Five years ago?
Yesterday. But for real, it’s the right time for people who have different ideas to shine.