Review of Issa Rae’s Web Series, Awkward Black Girl
October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Oh my gosh, how am I just now catching up with Issa Rae’s amazing web series, Awkward Black Girl? And second question, can I wait til Halloween for the Halloween episode, which looks like it could be the best episode yet? The answers are: 1) because I am a latecomer to everything good, and 2) Yes, I can handle it, but it won’t be easy.
Awkwardness is a theme we who live on the internet love to explore. Whether one ships April and Andy from Parks and Recreation, and streams and re-streams their every interaction, or one participates in hashtags referring to “that awkward moment when,” awkwardness acts as an umbrella term for many of our generation’s questions about the changing social world we encounter every day. (Or, I should awkwardly say, every day we choose to leave the comfort of our screens in order to venture outside.) Awkward Black Girl does a great job, from the first episode, exploring what makes some experiences more awkward for some subjects than others, as well as what degree of awkwardness is reasonable to withstand without commentary. There is a clear distinction, for example, between the overt racism of protagonist J’s boss and the more subtle undermining tactics of her co-workers, but because of the power structure at the office, she is equally unable to comment on either. Thus, the necessity of the story: Here, J tells us about her life as she experiences it, not just in voiceover, but by letting us in to her private moments during her day, like her drive to work. This kind of intimacy of perspective is at the core of the appeal of the web series format, at least for me, and I’m impressed by Rae’s performance throughout. In fact, all of the acting is excellent, never leaning on tricks of editing to create humor where it wasn’t.
In terms of the Story, I love that, in only nine episodes, the show has established at least two friendships I care about, set up layered romantic tension among at least four characters, and offered character development and depth to everyone we’ve met. A series like this raises serious questions for big media as to why their stories require such large budgets, if the core principles are so easy for talented storytellers to convey using less? One of the reasons I’m so excited about this and other web series is that they ask us to consider just what it is we value in the stories that are disseminated about contemporary life — is there any recent blockbuster movie with a female protagonist as complex as J? I can’t think of one. Which is not to say that we should abandon what we’ve had thus far — the bit about the stapler in this series is obviously a shout-out to Office Space, which got stories like this one about office life in precarious financial times going. However, it seems that Awkward Black Girl is the next step in that genealogy, rather than, say, Up in the Air, a movie I enjoyed, but which was adequately described by one critic as a “big-screen American Airlines advertisement.” Perhaps one reason that film was so hard to distinguish from an advertising was the lack of any kind of social critique presented there. Social critique is at the core, for me, of the kind of storytelling that gets people truly invested in contemporary culture, and if film has lost its sense of that, then the web series has a chance to pick it up. It’s not simply a matter of “niche interest” to tell stories from different perspectives than that of the dominant culture — it is necessary, and at the core of what good storytelling can uniquely address.
Which is not to say, of course, that Money doesn’t matter to the creators and cast of Awkward Black Girl. It’s always an issue when we’re talking about new media, especially the web series. It’s important on the one hand not to get wrapped up in the idea that anyone can just throw together a quality web video product, but on the other hand to congratulate high-powered cultural producers who can mobilize support for their work. Just like my favorite web series, The Guild, whose creators have gotten a lot of mileage out of the grassroots narrative of the show’s fan-funded first season, Awkward Black Girl deserves recognition for its achievements in the same sphere. As Felicia Day has pointed out, “big stars have done Web series that have gotten zero people to watch them. There’s no magic bullet; it’s just persistence and making content over and over again and knowing that you love doing it even if you might not get a million people to watch.” Issa Rae and the team behind Awkward Black Girl have definitely demonstrated their commitment to similar principles, taking full advantage of the possibilities created by 21st-Century digital culture.
As for the Future of Awkward Black Girl, I hope that the show continues to expand in whatever way comes most naturally to the story — whether this will mean an expansion into other media, as The Guild has done with music videos and comic books, or a change in episodic structure and an expansion of themes, I think that there is much unexplored potential. Looking forward to Halloween!