Following the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and last week’s grand jury decision not to indict the cop who killed Eric Garner, social media has been abuzz with commentary on race in America. Much of the conversation has been duly serious as communities both online and off process the weight of these decisions. Even notoriously quick-witted comedian Jon Stewart, took a break from slinging jokey political commentary to weigh in on the gravity of the state of our decidedly non-post-racial society. But Issa Rae, the creator of the hit webseries Awkward Black Girl, is tackling the tragedy with the tools she knows best: creativity and humor.
Days after the announcement of the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, Rae released a teaser for her new webseries, The Legend of Human Black Guy. The series poses the very topical question: Can a black guy simply be human?
The teaser shows the lead actor, enimaL, chatting on the phone with his mom about whether he should buy flowers for his grandmother. His neighbor, an older foreign white woman emerges from her apartment with her laundry basket. When he casually asks if she’d like to join his bowling league, we see what the neighbor sees. He’s distorted into a different person entirely, his eyes lazily threatful, his language reduced to thuggish interjections. The neighbor responds with outlandish aggression: “I have a set of three heavy duty locks on the inside of my apartment!”
The scene is brief, hilarious, and cutting. The interaction is absurd, but all too real. The encounter points to the deeply ingrained and routinized smaller injustices that allow larger injustices to prevail.
Issa Rae spoke to the Daily Dot about her inspiration for the series, the pain of seeing distorted images of young black men in the media, and her hopes for a better media to come.
You’ve had huge success with your webseries Awkward Black Girl. What inspired this next project? Is this the male version of Awkward Black Girl?
In a sense, but it’s also very much separate. The project is inspired by the images of black men that the media perpetuates. Every time I hear about a boy or a man being shot down by the police, I think about my younger brother, [eminaL]. He could very well fit the stereotype of a black male, but he’s not that at all. I always think how devastated I would feel if his image was distorted by the media.
[When I heard about the grand jury decision], I felt helpless. What could I do? So this is my tool—creating a narrative and creating images. This is my way of humanizing black men.
Awkward Black Girl explores a lot of taboo subjects: for example when J relieves stress by rapping in secret and uses the N-word, in her rhymes. What kind of taboos will The Legend of Human Black Guy explore?
I will explore all the taboo subjects that I can. A lot of this will [come from] conversation[s] with my brother. I’m not projecting [my experience onto it]; this is stuff that he’s been through anyway.
I can see already a lot of black guys are like, “This is my life.” And it really hasn’t been addressed in this way before. The approach will be satirical. This guy is black and human. This is a legend: Does he eat the same food as us? Does he work a 9 to 5?
When young black men are portrayed by the media, it’s always, “Obviously they’re criminals because they smoked weed.” Our last three presidents have smoked weed.
So I want to explore the differences between him and his white friends—what happens there, and how are they perceived?
Some of the most-loved protagonists in recent years have been white men who are doing criminal or deviant things, like Walter White on Breaking Bad or Don Draper on Mad Men. What do you make of that?
Whenever there are white men who are dealing drugs, it’s like this brilliant character. He has to do it because he has cancer and it’s the only way he can take care of his family. If a black guy did it, it would be like, “Well, that’s what they do anyway.” Or if there is a show that deals with it, it’s not seen as groundbreaking; it has a different tone.
It sounds like the most subversive thing is actually to just make black protagonists very ordinary.
[Laughs] Yeah, sadly that’s the truth.
How did you choose the lead actor?
enimaL is my little brother. He has already been in a lot of my stuff. My sister has a board game coming out called Black Blocks… You’re put in the position of a black player and all these blocks are in your way.
We shot an infomercial for it last January, and that [laundry scene] was one of the scenarios.
Obviously this is a time where people are speaking out and pushing for change. Do you think comedy and entertainment can be used as a tool for social justice?
I wouldn’t put myself on the same level as a social justice lawyer. I’m just doing what I feel like I am capable of doing. I do think indirectly [Awkward Black Girl] has an effect on how the media portrays women, especially black women. And the feedback I’ve gotten from people in general has been very positive. People say, “This is how I felt.”
I’d love to see more images that I can relate to. I hope to have the same effect here. [Awkward Black Girl] came from being tired of not seeing representation. Why are black women always the same in television and films? This is kind of the same thing.
What would be your ideal outcome for how black men are portrayed in the media?
I hope that black men will one day get the Will Smith treatment. Will Smith is black, and he’s achieved a certain level of success where his blackness is still elusive in a way. He’s seen as a human being. At a very core level, I want the media to treat black men as human beings. I want this to open doors; I’d like for black men to have options outside of being an athlete, a ballplayer or even law enforcement. Dream Hampton has a very interesting theory about what black people are allowed to be in television. Whenever they’re allowed to be leads, they have to be agents of the state. I want black men to be able to exist peacefully without having to represent the entire race.
Screengrab via Issa Rae/YouTube