The North Hollywood bachelor’s pad is steamy hot. The shades are drawn to keep out the light, the windows shut to block outside noise. The single air-conditioning unit has been stilled, and the refrigerator has been clicked off to eliminate buzz. A 12-person film crew is stuffed inside this one-bedroom apartment, which is serving as the set for an episode of the popular Web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
The star and creator, Issa Rae, who spent her early childhood in Potomac, waits at the door, ready to make her entrance. Rae wears a plain black sweater, white socks stuffed in black flat shoes. Her hair is cropped in a short Afro. Her earrings dangle. Her eyebrows crouch, tracing her emotions.
This is the episode where her character, J, who identifies herself as an “Awkward Black Girl” is about to get it on with her love interest, White Jay.
All season long, the tension has built to this moment. Will they? Won’t they? (Spoiler alert: The sections about the filming of the show will reveal some details.)
“Roll cameras,” a director shouts. “Episode 207, Scene 11, Take 1.”
An assistant claps the slate.
“Jay!” Awkward Black Girl yells, rushing into the apartment and looking down at the buttons on her shirt. “I’m about to break that baaaaack!”
She undoes the buttons diligently, fumbling a bit , exuding an awkward sex appeal.
“You are not ready for this!” Awkward Black Girl continues yelling.
Buttons undone! Triumph! Cheesy grin.
She rips open her shirt to reveal an ocean-blue bra, then looks up.
Oh, no! White Jay and two of his friends are in the kitchen, staring.
Awkward Black Girl had failed to make sure her boyfriend was alone when she arrived at his apartment and made her flamboyant entrance.
J spins around, faces the door, her face frozen in one of Rae’s now-patented “Awkward Black Girl” expressions.
Does stuff like this happen to anybody else?
Rewind to Episode 1 of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
Cue the music.
J introduces herself to viewers: “I’m awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone can be.
“That someone was right.”
With those words, Issa Rae created a show that has prompted a virtual dialogue about race, culture and perception, while busting stereotypical portrayals of black people in television and film. Episode 1, which was posted in February 2011, has received more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube. The 15 episodes that have followed have been viewed more than 13 million times.
Critics say Rae has bypassed mainstream media’s gatekeepers to create a character that hasn’t existed. “One of the reasons Issa Rae is so popular and the Web series ‘Awkward Black Girl’ has gone viral is that it effortlessly complicates and counters the narratives that have been historically produced about black women,” such as the Mammy (comforting), the Jezebel (promiscuous), the Sapphire (outspoken, angry), says Kimberly C. Ellis, a scholar and social media critic known online as Dr. Goddess.
The character of J, Ellis says, “is multifaceted, has idiosyncrasies and has complications.”
J also challenges the expectation that black women have to be strong, Ellis adds. “The idea that all these women are ‘strong black’ women — that is a trap and a cage because it means you can’t show your vulnerability. You can’t show you are awkward. You can’t show you make mistakes.”
Being “black and awkward is the worst,” Rae says in an interview, “because black people are stereotyped as being anything but awkward in mainstream media. ... Black people are always portrayed to be cool or overly dramatic, anything but awkward.”
She has a point. When you pause to think about it, other than Urkel of “Family Matters,” awkward black television characters don’t immediately jump to mind. Cool black characters, now, that’s a different story: There’s Bill Cosby on “I Spy” and “The Cosby Show”; Pam Grier as “Foxy Brown”; Diahann Carroll as “Julia”; Will Smith as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”; Blair Underwood on “L.A. Law”; Jesse L. Martin and S. Epatha Merkerson on “Law & Order”; Ice-T on “Law & Order: SVU”; Wanda Sykes on “The New Adventures of Old Christine”; Eriq La Salle on “ER”; Chandra Wilson on “Grey’s Anatomy”; Penny Johnson on “Castle”; Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams and Sonja Sohn on “The Wire”; Taye Diggs on “Private Practice” ...
All those characters are considered pretty, smooth, smart and in charge. Perhaps in overcompensation for past stereotyping, networks appear to have trouble creating vulnerable black characters.
But awkwardness can make a character accessible. Feeling awkward, Rae says, “is a very human element. I think that’s what helps so many people feel related to J, despite the fact that she is black.”