I believe in talent – and I believe that truly creative talent fills a need. In some cases it satisfies our need for humour and, for some of us, that humour helps us learn about ourselves.
Today’s post is an interview with Ms. Issa Rae, (pronounced “EE-sa Ray”) the unique and talented writer, director, producer and star of the web-series “The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl” (ABG). This interview was conducted by two dames and huge fans, one of whom is my friend Mia Imani who is a multimedia entrepreneur discovering and working with rising talent in film, music, print and various forms of new media.
I wanted to introduce you to this rising star whose name I believe you’ll be hearing more of in the near future. Her fan base is growing daily; we watched her hilarious web series several times and were pleased to discover new things each time (For example-spoiler alert! - homages to other movies such as a scene reminiscent of a famous scene from the movie ‘The Color Purple’).
Dames: You attended film school in both California and New York — Do you collaborate with any former classmates and, if so, in what capacity?
IR: My arch-nemeses in the Misadventures of Awkward Black girl series, the character Nina, is played by Tracy Oliver who is a friend and former classmate. As of the third episode, she became co-producer of ABG. We have been writing / collaborating on various other projects since college. It’s nice that I’m working with someone I can be comfortable with.
Dames: The chemistry and the flow in ABG really works; it’s seamless. Is that because of your history and relationship with the cast? Do most of the actors who appear do so on a volunteer basis for exposure, or are they mostly extras just in it for fun but not actually aspiring actors?
IR: About half of the cast are friends from school. Initially I was seeking volunteers, but everyone was having so much fun they wanted to remain involved. I recruited friends to be in ABG but by the second episode, people were asking to be included. Half of those involved now are friends and the rest are actors who want to be part of it.
I am glad that it comes across as seamless — fortunately, everyone I’m working with WANTS to be involved with the series. I give an outline for characters, but the actors really add the special touches that transform the characters into the memorable people we see on screen. For example, when I first started, the guy who plays A, who is a friend, expressed interest in playing a supportive role. He is a sweet, awesome guy who is an amazing dancer and I’ve known him since college. I gave him license to make the character his own. The nerdy look, scrunched facial expressions and glasses are all his ideas to bring to the character. Nobody who knew him in college recognises him as that character. It’s great to have him playing my bugaboo – my annoying love interest.
Dames: You seem to innately know yourself and it shows because “Awkward Black Girl” isn’t emulating anyone else’s style. Can you tell us who, among Filmmakers, inspires you?
IR: Tina Fey. I really admire her as a producer and a writer; I love her brand of humour. It’s awkward! I also really like Christopher Guest (of “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”); I admire him as a mocumentary filmmaker and producer.
Another person I really admire is Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) She produced, wrote and directed a simple love story – not just a ‘black story’, not about the ‘hood or the struggle – no one gets shot or killed in it. She’s one of the reasons I started writing; she’s definitely a major positive influence.
Dames: Is it a coincidence that most of the employees at the fictional company in the ABG series are African-American?
IR: I wanted it to be multi-cultural but with a strong African American presence. As time goes on I’ll be expanding the characters. They’re people; they’re awkward and they show their discomfort. The characters are universal: Patty the germ carrier is like Linus’ character (from the “Charlie Brown/Peanuts” cartoon, only she carries around a cloud of germs instead of dirt and dust. The boss is someone awkward who is trying to be cool, the DJ is someone I went to high school with, the character CeCe is Bengali.
Dames: We read a recent interview in which you mentioned that you have a full-time job. Is it in the arts/entertainment industry so that you’re able to leverage your professional network or do you split your time between what you do for a living vs. your passion?
IR: My job is with a not-for-profit organisation; it isn’t tied to artistic and creative industries. I split my time between work and following my passion – and film is my passion.
Dames: Do you have specific organisations you’re able to turn to for real support in your field?
IR: I don’t have any official organizational support but, as a result of the ABG show, I now have an agent and a manager. People from various blogs and magazines and even hair product producers have reached out to me – and that is so great because ABG is reaching a different demographic.
Dames: We spotted Donald Glover, who stars in Community on NBC, in a cameo role in one of your videos. How did you two meet? Do you plan on working together on more projects in the future?
IR: Actually, we haven’t met. I have a copy of his movie “Mystery Team” and I used a clip from it in an episode. I adore him! He’s the original awkward Black suburban kid. Using the clip was my homage to another independent film producer. This is my shout out to him to get his attention and I’m saying “Hey I love you, I want to have your children!” I would LOVE to work with him in the future!
Dames: The first episode features “The big chop” and subsequent breakup — was that pure fiction or based on actual events?
IR: That was 100% fiction. I would never cut my hair for a guy! I just wanted to start over with my hair so I thought it would also work well with the character. I thought it was something the character, J, would do. She’s more hopeful, optimistic and romantic than I am. J is an initial for her name and it adds to her allure to keep her first name a mystery; she wants to remain anonymous.
Dames: Have you received lots of support or have you received blowback from people who think you should or should not describe yourself publicly as ‘awkward and black’?
IR: I have received only one concerned e-mail about that. Someone asked ‘why awkward and black’ as though it is something negative. For the most part it has been positive; there are no real concerns and most people seem to identify with the characters.
Dames: What methods did you use to generate buzz for the ABG series?
IR: I use mostly Facebook and Twitter to advertise the show but my network of friends spreads information by word of mouth. About 80% of the buzz comes from people sharing with other people.
Dames: How do you finance your projects?
IR: The first several episodes were out of pocket. I had my own camera and equipment but then a friend decided to put money into ABG for episodes 5 and 6 — so I now have a co-producer.
This would be expensive if I had to buy my own equipment but we shot ‘guerilla’ style using locations that were readily available to us. Now we have an amazing cinematographer who is volunteering his time and using his own equipment. I was able to hook up with someone from Vibe Magazine who has it streaming on multiple sites where I can obtain a revenue stream from the ads on line. That revenue stream allows us to do things like reimburse actors for transportation costs. YouTube and BlipTv have a strong advertising program while Vimeo is what we’ll use for German uploads because YouTube is blocked in some countries.
Dames: Does the financing impact the length of the episodes?
IR: I initially didn’t want the episodes to be more than 5 minutes. Everyone was having such a good time and really adding to the material, so we just kept going. I would love for this to be a 30 minute television show, but webisodes will not be more than 10 minutes.
Dames: Would you most like to concentrate on the small screen or do you have feature film aspirations as well?
IR: Feature film is my first love. I plan to continue working with my friend, writing partner and now co-producer , Tracy Oliver, as well. I’ll also stay involved with my younger brother Enimal’s ‘Fly Guys’ series as another one of my productions. Those can be seen on my website as well.
Dames: One final question for you, Ms. Rae: Who came up with the theme music for ABG?
IR: EnimaL does the music for the show. I just tell him the feel I want for a scene, in so many inarticulate words, and he just gets it. And most of the time I’ll get him the episode the night before it’s supposed to air and say, “PLEEEEEEEEEEEASE help me!” and he ALWAYS delivers.
Dames: We think Issa Rae is going to deliver for a long time to come!