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Issa Rae: HBO’s New Kid On the Block

By Mary L. Datcher/Arts & Entertainment Editor

The hard road that Black filmmakers travel is not a secret in Hollywood. There is a short list of executives of color compared to their white counterparts, resulting in a very slim margin of green-lit projects by African-American production companies.

With the expansion of more entertainment networks such as OWN, TV One and Revolt, the search for quality programming that reaches a niche audience is more in high demand than ever. Where the need to fill the void of searching for creative and unique content is right at our fingertips with platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Crackle and Amazon, it puts more control in the hands of new talent.  

Issa Rae, writer and creator of the successful hit web series Awkward Black Girl, has proven just how influential the digital world has become. With over 25 million views and 200,000 subscribers, she and producer Tracy Oliver started the series in 2011. Within three years, it was a runaway hit through social media, blogs and word-of-mouth. The Stanford University graduate found her calling.

It was a far cry from her father’s expectation for her entering law school.

“My sophomore year, I was supposed to declare my major. I was taking all of the major classes, all I had to do was declare I was taking all of the classes — it was just answer one question. Why do you want to major in political science, because my dad wants me to, and that was not enough for me? He didn’t find out until he came to my graduation. I got a degree in African-American studies and minor in political science. He was like, ‘African-American studies? You might as well have majored in flowers! What?’” 

Growing up, Rae lived between California and Maryland with her family. Her father, a pediatrician from Senegal, had lost his savings trying build his practice in his native country.

“He ended up going back to LA and starting over and sent us to Maryland with his friend, another Senegalese man. I had all of these friends that I didn’t know was rich, but they were rich while we were washing paper plates.”

They eventually joined her father in California, settling later in Woodland Hills.

Issa Rae at Chicago HBO pre-screening of "Insecure" at the Cultural Center. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

Issa Rae at Chicago HBO pre-screening of “Insecure” at the Cultural Center. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

Rae says she takes a great deal of her storytelling from real-life experiences that others can relate to in creating “Awkward Black Girl.” 

After a couple of years of working with screenwriter and actor Larry Wilmore, the two worked on the pilot that would become “Insecure.” In 2015, HBO picked up the pilot and green-lit production for Fall 2016 release.

“I think they recognized the audience that we built online. I think they recognized there was a unique story that needed to be told that no one else was telling, and they had an opportunity to tell,” she said. “They saw something in this. I saw that it’s surely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They took their time in making sure it was right for them and it was right for me.”

The show has secured a prime time slot on HBO, which premiered on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 9:30 p.m. We follow the main characters, played by Rae and her co-star Yvonne Orji (Molly), as they find solace and turbulence in their friendship while dealing with relationships, the workplace and awkward life challenges. 

Diverse Characters

“People see the things that we go through, the boring things, the dramatic things, the mundane things — feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I felt that way.’ Everybody has had some insecurities — everybody has asked, ‘Am I doing this right?’ or ‘How am I going to figure this out?’ compare themselves to others.”

Rae says these are just real feelings. The 31-year-old filmmaker feels the small screen hasn’t experienced such a diverse array of characters since the 1990s.

“I don’t want to discredit other experiences that we’ve seen on the screen because those are all true to some extent. I do miss seeing people that I could just say, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ ”

issa-rae-premiere-episode-700x380Building with other creative talent in the industry is vital to building relationships in the business, but she admits she didn’t have many mentors because the digital frontier was still very new to many veterans.

“There was no blueprint to follow, there were no questions to ask because people were figuring it out. Now, I have really amazing mentors,” she explains.  

“Debbie Allen always reaches out, Shonda reaches out, and Ava Duvernay — they always lend a hand. They were all instrumental.”

She had the opportunity to have dinner with some of them and they offered some incredible advice for budding new talent.

“I had this powerful moment where I was just b—-ing up — just being meek — and they told their individual stories where they were in similar situations. They each had their revelations, and those revelations led to where they were today. As they were telling their stories, I’m sitting at a table with all of these boss-ass women, I want to be like them and I’m being meek?”

As she enters a new chapter in her life transitioning her storytelling from the loyal following of YouTube, she is excited about expanding to the big world of cable network television — with no regrets.

“I can honestly say I created what I wanted to create.”

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