Where Do We Go From Here: Musings on Issa Rae and Black Content Producers

Curator's Note

In October 2012, industry trades were abuzz with news that Shonda Rhimes's production company Shondaland developed Issa Rae's project I Hate LA Dudes (IHLAD) and sold it to ABC. The stories celebrated Rhimes for taking Rae under her wing and giving her access to industry most young women of color never gain.

Fast forward to this year's pilot season and nary a word about ABC ordering IHLAD to series appears in the industry trades. While the lack of news about Rae's series does not mean the project is out of play, it is a useful starting place to discuss the conditional space of Black women producers in the television industry.

The video clip is an interview Issa Rae gave CNN on the origins of ABG as well as the possibilities and potential for people of color online. It is true—the webseries is a way for marginalized voices to find spaces in which alternative perspectives to the mainstream can be heard. And it is true that the webseries can bring in a large audience.

However, we cannot fail to acknowledge that a key function of the webseries is gaining visibility and procuring ways into the entertainment industry. Akin to the “short film,” the webseries operates as a calling card to industry executives.

In Rae's case, the calling card worked. She gained a working relationship with the most powerful Black female showrunner in television and was able to develop a series. However, as is the case with most show ideas, the network may have elected not to pursue. Despite the built-in audience, the critical acclaim around Issa Rae, and, let's just be real, the support of Rhimes who rarely fails to at least get her series to the pilot stage, at the end of the day, the executives may have elected to stick with their status quo. Thus the webseries can open up space for Black women producers but it does not necessarily generate enough leverage to move into mainstream network television—regardless of universal appeal.

Never fear for Rae: On Monday, Variety reported that Magic Johnson Enterprises new cable television network, ASPiRE, greenlit its first talk show titled Exhale, featuring Rae as one of the hosts.  While I am excited for Rae the persona, Rae the Black female writer/producer is, as always, excluded from the table.





I share your ambivalence about Rae's new gig. I believe most of her fans see her as a writer-producer in the vein of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but a big part of the problem is the regular buyers of black content -- BET, TVOne, TBS, OWN, Centric -- have not been empowered by their conglomerate parents to take risks and really invest in writerly series (what relationships do the studios supplying them with shows have with the WGA?). "The Real Househusbands of Hollywood" pretty much sums it up for me. At the same time Rae would fit right into FX and Comedy Central, if only those execs had the vision. Is there any hope either of these sides of the market will open up and seriously invest in production from people of color?

I'd argue these niche networks are, in some ways, taking risks, but they're taking said risks with white writers/producers. Particularly if we look at TVOne, they took a chance with Belle's (which they also recently cancelled), but did so with the white producer who was most "famous" for his work on Taxi and The Cosby Show. It seems that the industrial logic only allows POC to produce content that closely mirrors the successful content that has come before it.

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