Writer, director and producer Issa Rae is part of a new generation of black visionaries coming out of Hollywood who are telling unapologetically black narratives. We caught up with the Emmy-nominated star and creator of HBO’s hit series, Insecure, on her
Over a decade ago, young Rae was desperately trying to break into the film and TV industry, submitting scripts to competitions and trying to sell movies and series to Hollywood executives who constantly told her there were no audiences for “these types of stories”. While studying at Stanford University, USA, Rae thought of creating a mockumentary called Dorm Diaries, focused on the experience of black students like herself. “Back then, I was also on Facebook a lot and thought it would be cool to cast my friends in a web series that I could post. I knew my friends would share it because they’re vain!” she laughs.
She shot the film using her own equipment, inspired by shows like A Different World and The Office. It soon spread to other universities and Ivy League colleges, drawing a sizeable audience, after which Rae had an epiphany. “I thought: ‘Wow! I created this from scratch, put it directly out there and no-one could tell me that I couldn’t do it, or that there wouldn’t be an audience for it, because I had direct access to one.’”
By the time she made The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, she’d learnt major lessons from the content she’d previously created and was no longer trying to create for TV executives, but purely for her burgeoning online audience. “Previously, I was pitching to people who kept telling me that what I was doing wouldn’t work. The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl was when people started hitting me up, including the execs,” she recalls. HBO was one of the networks which approached her to create an original show.
Rae’s career has blossomed at a time when many other people of colour are behind the resurgence of TV series with predominantly black casts, such as Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, Lena Waithe’s The Chi, Mara Brook Akil’s Being Mary Jane and, of course, Shonda Rhimes.
Rae’s hit show, Insecure, has just wrapped up its third season and has acquired a large following over the past three years among millennials the world over. She says it draws on the real-life experiences of herself and her friends, with the character of Molly (played by Yvonne Oriji) based on her real-life best friend.
“I knew of Yvonne before we were friends because I’d seen a funny clip of hers that was circulating online in 2008 and added her as a friend on Facebook. When Insecure was selected for a pilot, I could think of no-one better to audition for the role of Molly,” she says.
The show’s garnered widespread praise for its visual and sensory language and for each episode, Rae works closely with music supervisor Kier Lehman in providing the soundtrack.
HBO recently announced a fourth series of Insecure for 2019. In addition, Rae co-starred in The Hate U Give, alongside Amandla Steinberg, and is working on a movie titled Little, with Marsai Martin of Black-ish, inspired by Tom Hanks’ classic Big.