Persephone Pioneers: Issa Rae

[Original publication date: Nov. 23, 2011]

Are you awkward? So is Issa Rae, and she is bringing it to you through her breakthrough series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. If you haven’t been watching Rae’s series, I would suggest tuning in right now. No, like now, shut down the interview, give an hour to ABG and then come back here. Seriously.

Rae is the writer, director, producer, and star of the ABG web series that has now taken off with a cult following, confirming the very feelings that most of us walk around with. Rae’s character, J, isn’t about nice fluffy statements or glossing over social awkwardness in a manic-pixie-girl fashion. From the first episode: “Let me introduce myself. My name is J, and I’m awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone could be. That someone was right.” Damn.

Persephone folk, I can’t emphasize how excited I am to have her on our site. Please welcome Issa Rae!

Headshot of Issa Rae

Persephone Magazine: You are a self-described writer, director, editor, and mess-talker. Was filmmaking always something you wanted to do? How did you get started?

Issa Rae: I didn’t really want to start making films until I saw Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball. That movie changed my life in terms of making me realize that I wanted to create something like that, too. After watching that movie every day, I decided to write my own screenplay at the age of 16. Ever since then, I haven’t stopped writing for the screen.

PM: Your work spans over several music videos and series from The “F” Word, which profiles the hip-hop trio, The Fly Guys, to Dorm Diaries, which chronicles a group of friends and their experiences at Stanford. Do you feel there has been a theme explored on your work or do you take it project by project? How do you think these shorts led to your more recent project that’s receiving a lot of attention, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl?

IR: I tend to just write what I know. That’s my general theme. I went to Stanford and experienced being Black at Stanford, so I made a series about it. My little brother is in the Fly Guys and I have a fascination with rappers and the music industry, so I decided to create a satire. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl definitely draws on some of my own thoughts and experiences, and had I not decided to create Dorm Diaries when I was in college, I probably never would have thought to make ABG a web series.

PM: Why did you create The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl? Why do you think it’s important to have a series like this one?

IR: I created it out of necessity. I really wanted to see a Black, quirky, comedic lead female character on screen. It’s important to have a series like this because it represents the diversity of blackness. We’re not all the same, like they’d have you believe on mainstream television and film.

PM: TV audiences often are presented with extremely limited representations in television or movies, especially with women of color, as they are usually reduced down to one of a handful of stereotypes. Why is a character like J important to have?

IR: I think a character like J is important to have because, again, there’s no one like her on television right now BUT there are TONS of us who exist. It’s important for that voice to be heard right along with the other limited characters Hollywood has to offer.

PM: Do you see J as an extension of yourself? How much of ABG reflects back on your own life?

IR: J is definitely an extension of me. Most of the experiences are taken from my middle school life. I’m not as insecure in my adult years, but I play out any insecurities I did have through “J.”

PM: What do you think is one of the hardest things about doing a show like ABG, or even any DIY show, for that matter? What are some of the most challenging things you have dealt with while making your work? What are the best things?

IR: The most challenging thing is getting started. I made so many excuses about why I couldn’t make the show happen and I was the ONLY thing standing in the way of making it happen. Now that the show is progressing, the hardest thing is the pressure. I think the since the audience has grown, I feel more obligated to deliver, and I hate that feeling. But the BEST thing about doing the show is that I have complete creative control and that I can put out whatever I think is funny. Plus, I get to work with awesome, amazingly talented people.

PM: What awesome work can we look forward from you in the future?

IR: I have two other web series I’m working on that I’m excited about and two feature films that I’m working on with Tracy Oliver. I can’t wait to shoot my first feature film!


To check out more of Issa Rae’s work, visit her site and check out new episodes of ABG coming soon!

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