Issa Rae and her fans are playing the waiting game with her TV career, and much of the delay has to do with Hollywood’s cluelessness. In a new profile for The New York Times, Rae talked about the status of her HBO pilot and her struggles getting projects heard in the thick of whiteness.
In 2013, Rae landed an HBO deal off the success of her Web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. The series was officially ordered to pilot earlier this year. But in today’s NYT profile, written by Jenna Wortham, Rae says the show—titled Insecure—has yet to begin filming and doesn’t have a director [Update: The wonderful Melina Matsoukas is directing the pilot] or a cast confirmed other than Rae herself, who’s playing the main character.
Rae spoke dishearteningly about how hard it was to get execs to buy into her series without changing the concept completely:
Rae recalls a phone conversation with a network executive who wanted to make it into a pan-racial franchise operation, starting with ‘‘Awkward Indian Boy.’’ Another suggested Rae recast the lead with a lighter-skinned actress with long, straight hair — in essence, the exact opposite of Rae. She turned down the offers.
‘‘They wanted to make it as broad as possible, broadly niche, but I was like: No, that’s not what this is about,’’ she says.
Insecure had the benefit of having Larry Wilmore attached to the project. He and Rae spent a month hammering out the direction of show. He says:
“I asked her what was going on in her life, what’s important to her, her sex life, what she thinks about, and we built the show out of that. She had the ideas for characters, and we created a world around them.’’
Rae’s other promising project was a series for ABC titled I Hate L.A. Dudes, under Shonda Rhimes’ production company. But the script kept getting crushed under the weight of edits. Rae says, “I compromised my vision, and it didn’t end up the show that I wanted. It wasn’t funny anymore.’’
Not surprisingly, Rae has also run into problems getting people of color hired for her projects:
As Rae sees it, the lack of diversity in writers’ rooms makes it hard to develop complex characters of color on-screen. Her solution is to bring more people of color into the television-writing pipeline, so she spends much of her free time working on Color Creative, a digital platform she co-founded for minority writers. She helps produce and find funding for their web shows, and offers aspiring writers a place to showcase their work. She started the organization, in part, as a response to her own difficulties with the network pitching process. ‘‘I don’t ever want it to be just me, ever,’’ she says. ‘‘That is the worst feeling, to be alone, because then all the pressure is on you. People expect you to be the voice of everyone.’’
Besides all the TV hiccups, the NYT profile also digs deep into Rae’s childhood growing up in the Windsor Hills section of L.A. and her journey to Awkward Black Girl, including the making of her first web series:
Rae posted episodes of ‘‘Dorm Diaries’’ to Facebook, and the show quickly circulated around her campus. From there, it spread to others, like Georgetown and Harvard. Rae learned that she had a knack for portraying everyday black life — not made special by its otherness or defined in contrast to whiteness, but treated as a subject worthy of exploration all of its own. ‘‘It was a light bulb, my epiphany moment,’’ she says.
There’s hope that Insecure will do good damage once it actually airs. Despite the seeming diversity boom on TV with shows like Empire and Black-ish, though, Rae is skeptical about how long it’ll last.
‘‘It still feels like we need to be in charge to prioritize story lines,” she says. “Behind the scenes, it can be very white.”
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