The Awkward, Insecure Badassery of Issa Rae
One of my personal favorite Issa Rae moments occurred on the red carpet at the 2017 Emmy Awards. During a brief interview with Variety, a reporter asked Rae which nominees she was rooting for that night. “I’m rooting for everybody black,” the actress, writer, and all-around badass replied, “I am!”
That single response speaks volumes about what makes Rae such a revolutionary and successful creator. Since she first began producing original content in 2011 with her indie web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Rae has been unapologetic about creating work that is grounded in her singular point of view. Not only does she refuse to apologize for her ideas, her aesthetic, and her creative choices, Rae delights in writing from her specific experiences and for a specific audience, rather than catering to the masses. Her comment in that Variety interview may have gotten some bigoted britches in a twist, but it only gave Rae’s ever-growing fan base one more reason to root for her, too.
Rae has been creating original scripted content since she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. And while The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl was a beloved fixture of the early 2010’s web series boom, Rae truly arrived on the scene in 2016 with her HBO comedy series, Insecure. Insecure is, in many ways, a continued exploration of the themes Rae first began to mine in her web series. The series follows Issa Dee (played by Rae) as she awkwardly stumbles through the friendship, career, and relationship tribulations of her late 20’s. Insecure is set in South Los Angeles, and features a primarily black cast: including Yvonne Orji as Molly Carter, Issa’s successful and stylish best friend, and Jay Ellis as Issa’s wayward and vulnerable boyfriend Lawrence.
There are many ways in which Insecure is a pioneering series. It’s the first HBO original series created, directed by, and starring a black woman, and it’s arguably the first show since Girlfriends to focus so keenly on black female friendship. It’s gorgeously shot, meticulously soundtracked, and painfully funny, with a cohesive voice that speaks to Rae’s unwavering vision. But an equally crucial aspect of Insecure is its intended audience.
"In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends… That’s what I think of when I'm writing the scenes,” Rae said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Just as Rae was unabashed about championing black nominees at the Emmys, she’s equally open about creating work with a specifically black audience in mind. And not only does Rae center the stories of black characters in her work, she’s passionate about extending opportunities to creators of color behind the scenes. She makes a point of amplifying underrepresented voices on her Youtube channel, and her writers rooms and sets are far more diverse than the average in Hollywood, where women and people of color have a harder time advancing in the industry than their white male peers. But just because Insecure is a show about black characters with a creative team helmed by black women doesn’t mean Rae is interested in shouldering people’s expectations for what such a show “should” be.
“My irritation stems from when people are like… ‘Do you feel a responsibility to talk about Black Lives Matter, or talk about what’s happening in this country on your show?’ And I’m like, I don’t feel any more responsibility than the people on Divorce should feel, or, like, the people on Veep should feel, you know?” Rae says in an interview with Vanity Fair, “And I feel like placing the responsibility on us, the people who talk about it all the time, who know what the fuck is going on, is where it gets irritating. That limits it to a diversity problem, and a people of color problem. And it's an American problem.”
In this highly divided political moment, responses to Rae’s work have been predictably polarized. But she doesn’t for a moment shy away from using the platform she’s built through her work.
“Entertainers in the past have been just relegated to the role of entertainment… Now, I feel like there’s too much at stake to be silent,” Rae said in a conversation with Amy Goodman, just before the inauguration of Donald Trump, “There’s not any room to be coy because you want to capture a mass audience. I have no interest in being silent about something that might offend others because I don’t want their support. I don’t want bigots to watch my work. I don’t need them to.”
Just as Rae is not interested in creating work for a mass, generic audience, she is also clear about the fact that she is not trying to tell every black woman’s story in her work in Insecure, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, or any of her other projects. She is drawing from her own unique experience and upbringing. As a child, Rae’s family moved around constantly, and spent time living in Los Angeles, Senegal, and Maryland. Rae attended both mostly white schools and mostly black and latino schools, and was constantly made to feel self-conscious about the fact that she didn’t really belong in either.
"When Tupac died, I didn't know who he was and didn't know how to pronounce his name. My hair was natural. I didn't have name-brand clothes and had no sense of fashion. I was just a misfit,” Rae says.
But there’s a hidden benefit to always feeling like a misfit. When your surroundings and social standing are constantly in flux, you’re forced to fiercely embrace your own vision of yourself and the world around you. When your perspective is the only constant in your life, it tends to become more distinct and refined. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Rae’s intensely personal work is so intriguing to her audience.
"I think that's what people are reacting to that feels so personal," Rae says, "We are telling specific stories with a universal element.”
It’s said that what is most personal is most universal, and Rae’s work is proof positive of that notion. By creatively mining her own experiences, championing the work of underrepresented artists, and unapologetically speaking her truth, Issa Rae is quickly establishing herself as one of Hollywood’s most exciting young leaders. And by her own account, she is ready to take that role and run with it.
“I think now people are looking to their favorite entertainers to say something and to guide them to an action point,” she has said, “I don’t ever want to be didactic in my own work, but we’re always going to promote conversation.”
Thankfully, Rae has many other projects in the works at HBO and beyond. Her unwavering voice is perfectly suited for these tumultuous times, and it will be thrilling to see what she creates as her platform and influence continue to grow. Issa Rae may have felt out of place growing up, but this former misfit is certainly staking a claim for herself in entertainment today… but then, that’s what pioneers tend to do.
Photo Credit: cover photograph by Chris Loupos via Adweek, first photograph by Neilson Bernard via Getty Images, and second Insecure HBO promo