Issa Rae Turns Basic Into Revolutionary With 'Insecure' Rae's new HBO show is the first premium cable scripted series created by and starring a black woman. She plays an ordinary, sometimes-awkward character, not a high-powered lawyer or music executive.
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Issa Rae Turns Basic Into Revolutionary With 'Insecure'

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Issa Rae Turns Basic Into Revolutionary With 'Insecure'

Issa Rae Turns Basic Into Revolutionary With 'Insecure'

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The actress, writer and producer Issa Rae has a soft spot for NPR. The online video promoting her best-selling book, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" includes a shoutout to a certain morning news show that she listens to while driving.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

ISSA RAE: NPR's MORNING EDITION theme is my [expletive] jam.

GREENE: On Sunday, Issa Rae debuts her new show. It is a comedy called "Insecure." And it's on HBO. She'll be the first black woman to create and star in a scripted series for that premium cable channel. NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans, says the 31-year-old star is really redefining how black women are depicted on TV just by being true to herself.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Issa Rae knows she's committing a revolutionary act in simply creating a TV show centered on an average black woman's life. And she can't believe it.

RAE: Isn't it sad that it's revolutionary, though? It's - we don't get to do that. We don't get to, like, just have a show about regular black people being basic.

DEGGANS: Look at TV shows that star black women these days, and you see a high-powered Washington fixer on "Scandal," a high-powered lawyer on "How To Get Away With Murder" and a high-powered music executive on "Empire."

But "Insecure" features Rae as a regular 29-year-old also named Issa. She works for a nonprofit group that helps at-risk kids. But she struggles to reach them in the classroom, especially when they ask questions like...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As student) Why you talk like a white girl?

(LAUGHTER)

RAE: (As Issa) You caught me. I'm rocking blackface (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As teacher, whispering) That's racist.

DEGGANS: And things aren't much better at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

RAE: I've been here five years. And they think I'm the token with all the answers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As coworker) Issa, what's on fleek?

RAE: I don't know what that means.

I know what that means. But being aggressively passive is what I do best.

DEGGANS: Even the raps she writes at home to let off steam - spitting verses while profiling her bathroom mirror somehow falls short.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

RAE: (Singing) Go shawty (ph). It's my birthday. But no one cares because I'm not having a party because I'm feeling sorry for myself.

In my storytelling, I'm just more interested in the basicness (ph) of human life - like, the regular human interactions that we have.

DEGGANS: Rae says she hasn't seen a TV show starring a black woman she could relate to since the late 1990s. Back then, she was living in Maryland. And this theme song was in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOESHA THEME SONG")

BRANDY: (Singing) Mo to the E to the...

RAE: I mean, I think "Moesha" is the last show where I remember, oh, this is just a regular black girl, you know? And that was also - she was in Leimert Park. She was going to high school. She was, like, a regular girl. And I moved back to LA and went to a taping of that show and had a script and, like, used that script as a format for all my other scripts.

DEGGANS: Rae made videos as a student at Stanford University. She created a video series called "Dorm Diaries" that was a mockumentary about, well, being black at Stanford. But her career took off after college when she created the "Awkward Black Girl" series on YouTube in 2011. The show features Issa Rae as J, a 20-something girl in a dead end job with a particular problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "AWKWARD BLACK GIRL "THE STOP SIGN"")

RAE: (As J) Let me introduce myself. My name is J. And I'm awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone could be. That someone was right.

DEGGANS: Issa Rae explains the awkwardness of this character by referencing noted civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois and his idea of double consciousness. That's the concept that marginalized groups in society, like black people in America, have to balance who they are with the way the larger society perceives them, like this moment when J's boss discovers she cut her hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "AWKWARD BLACK GIRL "THE JOB"")

RAE: (As J) My boss is an idiot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, my God - your hair. I go out of town for one month. And I come back, and it's like, did it shrink? Do you wash it? Is that how your ancestors wore it?

RAE: Like a constant introspection of being black and being uncomfortable with how you're viewed, too, or how you're perceived to be viewed.

DEGGANS: The web series went viral. And in 2013, HBO came calling. Rae worked with Larry Wilmore, star of the recently canceled late-night program "The Nightly Show," to develop a pilot script and create the series together. "Insecure" showrunner Prentice Penny is a veteran of series like "Girlfriends" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." At a press conference, he said Issa Rae's trying to get people to think and talk about complex social issues at a time when emotions are raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRENTICE PENNY: Everybody's kind of entrenched in positions. And we aren't willing to engage in some sort of - just a conversation. I think what Issa has done smartly - and we try to bring it to the show - was to poke fun at these things. But, hopefully, they can just start a conversation.

DEGGANS: "Insecure" lets viewers really see how young black people, especially women, talk to each other when no one else is watching. It's intimate and authentic. And Issa Rae's use of small stories to tell these universal truths turns "Insecure" to a major TV triumph. I'm Eric Deggans.

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