Issa Rae once wrestled with either going to business school or law school after her graduation from Stanford University. She ultimately opted for neither as her career as a producer and creator became more focused and drew her away from her original post-college pursuits.
“A clear path? No!” Rae told an audience of mostly women at the downtown Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre in early February. She was the featured guest speaker at the “In the Huddle” women’s summit sponsored by the NFL and held for the third straight year during Super Bowl week. She spoke to host Maria Menounos during an on-stage Q & A conversation.
Jo-Issa Rae Diop — her given name — was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in Maryland where she graduated from high school, then attended Stanford and graduated from there in 2007. As a collegian, Rae kicked start her career making music videos.
She later went to acting school on a fellowship while deciding whether to pursue business school or law school. But her success on the Internet, where she started a YouTube channel that now boasts over 200,000 customers, ultimately clinched her decision.
“The first two web series I had I made right out of college,” Rae offered. She watched a lot of television while growing up: “What I wasn’t seeing on television” was “authenticity” among Black characters, she explained, adding that she grew tired of seeing programs that seemed to be focused on “the struggles” of Blacks and other people of color. “The authenticity was what helped my career,” she said proudly.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a 12-episode web series, garnered rave reviews during its successful run, and later produced a book by the same name written by Rae. This led her to HBO, where she launched Insecure, a series she co-writes and stars in. The show has earned Rae two Golden Globe Best Actress nominations.
Rae told the audience that she first pitched Insecure to ABC but the network balked. That decision ultimately played in her favor, said Rae. “It would have been scripted,” she noted of her series. Rather HBO “allowed” Insecure to grow into a solid hit, she added.
Wearing multiple hats is challenging, Rae admitted. She’d made mistakes and learned from them. “There’s so much pressure on camera,” she stressed on playing her character on screen. “It’s all about learning from mistakes,” she reflected. “It’s all about finding the good in everything that went wrong. It’s all about how life happens to you.”
Rae’s other work includes The Choir (nine episodes), The ‘F’ Word (seven episodes) and Rachetpiece Theatre — all are web series.
Rae also decried the continued existence of the “only one shot” philosophy among television and movie executives when it comes to Black talent and shows that feature Blacks as leads. “The ‘one shot’ thing is ridiculous,” she reiterated. “A lot of television executives have that mentality. That’s really discouraging. There are so many stories to tell.”
The actress-writer-producer is committed to bringing to light these stories, especially those of Blacks and other people of color and women in a myriad of roles.
“You are seeing a shift behind the camera as well. I do feel hopeful that things will change. We can make a change, reclaim our own story,” Rae concluded. “That very much excites me…how to empower other women and other minorities to do the same thing.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.