Filmmaker Issa Rae describes ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to success

J, the protagonist of the hit web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, is self-conscious, misanthropic, sarcastic and, yes, awkward.

Issa Rae, the creator, writer and star of the award-winning show, had long been frustrated by the lack of complex, realistic black characters in popular culture—so she filled the gap herself. “Black women on TV are not the black women [who] are my friends,” Rae told UChicago students over lunch at the Logan Center on Nov. 9.

At the invitation of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, Rae visited the University to speak with students, meet with local artists and participate in a public conversation in Mandel Hall with Jacqueline Stewart, professor in Cinema and Media Studies and the College.

Clearly, Rae wasn’t alone in her longing for a more nuanced and expansive portrayal of black women: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl has attracted more than 20 million views on YouTube and thousands of fans and supporters. The online series helped to launch Rae’s career in the entertainment industry, resulting in a memoir and an upcoming TV series on HBO.

Nova Smith, a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies whose research focuses on African American film, introduced Rae at the public conversation. She sees Rae as part of a long tradition of groundbreaking black artist-entrepreneurs who successfully monetized their creative work, from Oprah Winfrey to Berry Gordy.

“[Rae] is the first person to really break into the digital realm,” Smith explained. “Not only is her content good, she is the pioneer of it. Her model is being successfully replicated.”

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl was the first of Rae’s web series to gain widespread success, but Rae had been experimenting with the medium for years. As an undergraduate, she produced a satirical show called Dorm Diaries that explored black students’ experiences at Stanford University, her alma mater.

“YouTube is the breeding ground of the content you’re not seeing on television,” Rae told students. With no major funders behind a series like Awkward Black Girl, “you’re always forced to be creative in telling your story.”

When asked her advice on breaking into the entertainment industry, Rae urged students to find any way to hone their craft—even if means creating their own opportunities. “I will always be a proponent of just getting up and doing it,” she said.