Urbanworld First Look: Issa Rae's 'Insecure' Is a Love Letter to Black Women
Photo Credit: Issa Rae's INSECURE (PRNewsFoto/BronzeLens Film Festival)
Festivals , Television

Urbanworld First Look: Issa Rae's 'Insecure' Is a Love Letter to Black Women

Issa Rae's INSECURE (PRNewsFoto/BronzeLens Film Festival)
Issa Rae’s INSECURE (HBO)

Some weeks ago, I logged into Facebook and became enraptured by a status an old college friend had recently posted. It read, “I trust Black women more than any other group of people.” Initially, I thought nothing of it, since it also rang true for me, but as I scrolled through the comments under the post, it was clear that my brown skin girlfriend had hit a nerve.

In the media and in our own community, Black women are told who we are, how we should be and what we’re going to be. We’re the most educated group of people in this country and yet we’re told our education will greatly diminish our chances at a “fairytale” home life. (Whatever that means.) In one breath we’re told we don’t give Black men a chance, and in another, we are told we baby our Black sons. We’re too loud, or we don’t speak up enough. We’re too weak, or too feminist. Or my personal favorite, our standards are just too high. According to everyone else, we’re just too damn much, and we need to fix a laundry list of things in order to find love, happiness, and security. It’s a constant and exhausting stripping of our humanity. It seems natural then that we gravitate inward towards one another. (Despite what the media tries to say.) As my friend’s Facebook post so bluntly put it, the reason I’m still living (and thriving) in this precarious space we call life as a Black woman, is because of the other Black women I choose to surround myself with.

Issa Rae’s long awaited and highly anticipated HBO series “Insecure”, puts the narrative of Black women back in our hands, while paying homage to our fellow sisters.





The series opens with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, perhaps a nod to what we’ll see this season. Not unlike her character in her acclaimed web series, “Awkward Black Girl”, Rae plays a fictionalized version of herself living in Los Angeles.  Deeply resentful of her five-year relationship with her boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and working a job she’s not quite sure about anymore, Issa decides that in her 29th year, she’s going to grab life by the balls. Along for the journey is Issa’s BFF Molly (Yvonne Orji), a bougie corporate lawyer whose romantic life is as dry as her professional life is poppin’.

“Insecure” is a love letter to Black women. It’s a series about navigating both Black and white spaces as Black women, while reassuring us that it’s OK to be whoever the hell you want to be.

The pilot episode of the series was screened at the Urbanworld Film Festival and afterward the cast of “Insecure” along with showrunner Prentice Penny (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and director Melina Matsoukas (Beyonce’s “Formation), sat down to talk about the series and what’s to come.

Out of the gate, the show breaks down the myth of the “strong Black woman”. Was that a conscious decision or was that something that just happened organically?

Issa Rae: I think it was a combination of identifying with not being strong at times and being very flawed. I mean, I love the narrative of “black girl magic”, but I don’t feel like that all the time and I felt like that’s what I wanted to see because there is a journey there, and I feel like I’m in a constant struggle and these characters are as well. “Insecure” came from a period where I was just not certain that I was doing life right, not sure that I was doing work right, and not sure that I was doing my relationship right. I felt like, “Am I alone in this?” I wanted to portray that. Thinking about some of my best female friends and friendships, I wanted to put a character I felt my friends could relate to on television.

Melina, you were the first female director to win an MTV Video Music award and you helped us all get into “Formation”, but when you got the call from Issa Rae and her team, were you unsure about moving into television?

Melina Matsoukas: Absolutely. We’re all flawed and obviously, this is my first venture into film and TV, and I wanted to make sure that I could bring something to it. When I read the script, I just knew I wanted to be a part of this journey. Starting from music videos and commercials and breaking into TV and film, people didn’t take that seriously. So when I was directing music videos, I started to shift how I was directing them by developing stories and characters. But, I was still hitting a brick wall. It wasn’t until I read this script and walked into the room with Issa and Prentice that I knew we spoke the same language. I don’t know that I’d be here if it wasn’t for them. It was so refreshing for people to have my back like that. We call ourselves, “Three the Hardway” because we fight for what we created.

Prentice, you’ve worked on shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Happy Endings”, all of these shows have diverse casts, but with mainly white leads. “Insecure” is a for us, by us kind of show, so how did that alter or shift your showrunning on this show?

Prentice Penny: I’ve been on shows where I’ve been the only person of color in the room, so I know what that landscape looked like. When I saw that the show was getting picked up and needed a show runner because Larry [Wilmore] was doing his show on Comedy Central, I knew that the things I’d learned and contributed over the years could help and shelter the project. Issa has such an amazing voice and I didn’t want anyone to mess that up. So I have a natural protection of that. I started on “Girlfriends” so I saw with Mara [Brock Akil] what a writer’s room full of people of color could look like. So many of our shows, and it’s not a right or wrong thing, are about our struggle or our pain. We rarely get to tell a slice of life story. With what is happening in the world with people not being able to see the humanity in people of color, to be able to do a show like this where we are talking about what it’s like to be people and to be human, is just so important right now. My approach to showrunning has just been, to tell the truth even if it’s uncomfortable. Several times in the writer’s room we would talk about story ideas and we would get into real heated debates about going too far, or crossing the line. Whenever we felt that it was uncomfortable it was like, “Yo, this is the story that we need to tell because that’s the story the public will talk about.”

Jay, let’s talk about your character Lawrence. Everyone has dealt with a “cereal-eating dude” before. How did you find an entry into this character because you are so vastly different from him?

Jay Ellis: When I originally read the part and I had to go audition for it, I was afraid of it, to be honest with you. I think being afraid of it made me more interested. Then I got it, and meeting, Issa, Prentice, and Melina before we shot the pilot; they talked to all of us one-on-one about our characters, about some of our back-story and our history. I’ll never forget Melina telling me, “You know when you’re at a low and you’re down and you don’t know how to get out of it.” I feel like no matter who you are, you know what the moment is like. Lawrence has just been stuck in that moment for a long time and he just doesn’t know how to get out of it. That frustration has just seeped into his relationship, his job search, his appearance and all of that.

Yvonne, Molly is supposed to be a badass boss so to speak. However, you play her so beautifully. How did you approach her?

Yvonne Orji: Thank you! I actually have a background in comedy, so everything about me wanted to be big, but these guys were just like “less, less”. (Laughing) I mean being single in LA is real. But to be real, this experience has just been incredible. For one, it’s not on TV; it’s on HBO, which hasn’t been done. It’s a story about Black people, Black women and it’s not every Black experience, it is a very specific Black experience. What I really commend Issa and the writers on is that it’s a sometimes really sad, sometimes really funny story about what it’s about to be these specific Black people. I think there is something that everyone can relate to.

Can we talk about Molly and Issa’s friendship? It’s just amazing to see Black women coming together.

YO: The friendship is my favorite part. We’re BFFs. It’s one of those friendships that is just so real and so authentic. It’s so refreshing to have a friend you can just be yourself with. They can call you out but they’ll still ride with you. That’s so beautiful to see. I think with a lot of TV you see the name-calling and the fights and the throwing stuff. In this show, we really do care about each other and even if we do fight it’s grounded in love. That is something that should be celebrated.

Issa, your story has just been so amazing you did “Awkward Black Girl” and everyone has been talking about you as the next big thing. But, can you talk about a moment that really almost took you down?

IR: Wow, that’s powerful. We can all attest to having been in the game and having done this for a while and having been discouraged because it does have its peaks and valleys. But, for me when the biggest disappointment came, I can only blame myself, and that’s the worst part. I think that opportunity came when I had the opportunity to work with Shondaland. That opportunity was once in a lifetime to me and I treated it as such. They could not have been more patient in terms of leading me into the television experience for the pilot. But I didn’t understand at the time that there was a network and a studio as well. So, while I had a great relationship with Shondaland, the network, and the studio had their own set of notes. I just wanted to please everyone, and I wasn’t navigating the notes like other writers typically do. I wasn’t confident enough in my own voice and my own vision to say, “That doesn’t work with the story I’m trying tell.” So, by the time I turned in the pilot, it really wasn’t something I could stand behind and it was all on me because I just didn’t navigate that landscape like I should have. The show was called, “I Hate LA Dudes”, so when they passed on the pilot I thought I had lost my one big chance and I was devastated, but I decided to just start over and prove myself again. Then, about a month after that door closed. HBO called and said, “We heard you’re free.”

Why is it important that “Insecure” is on HBO versus network TV?

PP: I feel like being on HBO you can push the envelope in a different way and be more truthful and honest. On a network show, you’re trying to appease twenty million people. On HBO it’s like, just tell your best story and people will respond to that. That whole outlook of the show is different, and the whole way you approach the show is different. It’s just been amazing because we don’t get to do these types of shows. When I saw the show get picked up, I knew I didn’t trust anyone else with the show. I called my agent to get a meeting with Issa, and I wrote her a letter about why I thought I would be good for her show. She and I just clicked.

IR: I’ve always wanted to be on HBO, to be honest. I’ve always put that out there even with “Awkward Black Girl”. If “Awkward Black Girl” went to television, I said I wanted it to be on HBO. But, by the time I got the opportunity we already had like twenty-four episodes online so I said, let me start over. I wanted to do something fresh. HBO just has the reputation for being friendly and cutting edge and I wanted to be a part of that.

“Insecure” really has true diversity, but let’s talk about your writer’s room.

PP: I think for us what has been amazing is that we have directors who are all people of color. That never happens, especially in comedy. With drama, it’s usually like, “Oh yeah, you know what dramatic shit looks like.” For our writing staff what was important was that even though our show is comedic and is about Black women, what Issa and I tried to do is have every different type of voice represented. We have comedy writers and dramatic writers, we have writers who are gay and lesbians, we have writers who are young, old, single, married. We didn’t want to repeat a voice in the writer’s room. Issa is the lens through which the show is framed so there was no need to hire eight Issas because we have one; we needed other voices to tell other stories. We read tons of scripts that you would think would have no bearing in a show like “Insecure”. However, what those scripts told us was that you’re a unique voice and that’s what we were looking for.

Jay, going back to Lawrence, we’ve never really seen this character as a Black man on television. We’ve seen it with white guys, but we’ve never really seen it in a Black man.

JE: What I really dig about Lawrence especially as we’ve gone through these eight episodes is that you see a dude who is a normal dude, but who is insecure in his own way. I mean in the beginning, he’s just about being there. I don’t want to say he gave up, he has ambition but is crippled by fear. He doesn’t want to be rejected again, and that’s just such a real thing. That frustration that he has with himself has filtered out to his relationship with Issa, to his friendship, to his looks. There was one point when my neck hair and my chest hair were starting to connect. (Laughing) Prentice was like, “Bruh, you took it way too far.” You see a dude that is low and I think that’s real. Being a Black man in this country is hard, especially when you see what is going on today with all of these Black men getting killed in the streets. That is part of what cripples Lawrence. That insecurity and that pressure is really put on him. It’s amazing that there are something like forty million Black people in this country but we just keep seeing three or four of the same stories. That’s what’s so special about this show. These characters represent someone of these forty-million people and Lawrence is just one of them.





What can we expect in this first season of “Insecure”?

JE: I can’t spill it all, but it’s going to be a lot of fun and a lot of nakedness; but not from any of the women. You’ll see someone on this show that everyone can relate too and I think that is what makes this show so unique. In the Diaspora of what it means to be Black, everyone is represented.

IR: The show is about the journey to find yourself in a sense. I’ve gone through this journey and I now say that I am confident in my insecurities. I’m confident in my flaws because that’s what makes me, me. Part of the journey is knowing that you’ll never be comfortable. So without spoiling it, that’s where they are going.

“Insecure” premieres on HBO Sunday, October 9th at 10:30PM ET. However, the pilot episode is currently available exclusively on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand


Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

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