Why Issa Rae's Golden Globe-nominated HBO series delivered exactly what it needed to.
Black artists and content creators might have single-handedly saved the world in 2016. Throughout these politically dismal, mentally taxing, and spiritually draining past 12 months, black musicians and filmmakers managed to pump a creative energy throughout the year that felt purposefully warm. Across 2016's "best of Hollywood" year-end lists, it's clear that love was on the brain for a lot of people of color — especially young people of color, as they so vitally needed all of the love they could stand this year. For many black millennials, Issa Rae's recently Golden Globe-nominated smash, Insecure, delivered exactly what they needed, and defined them exactly how they wanted.
Among other feats, the best shows are ones that engage their audience in ways that make its characters feel real and relatable. Not since The Wire has HBO produced a show so smart and so black that folks talked about its characters over Thanksgiving dinner as if they were a part of the family. Insecure has filled an eight year-long gap, in that sense.
It should shock no one that a show written and produced by a woman with the instinct to include a different Drake reference in each episode resonated so deeply with young, love-struck people of color across America. The best shows also do that — they contextualize themselves within the canon of pop culture in ways that feel timely and necessary. In 2016, artists like Issa Rae — black artists — mastered this sort of creative heroism.
In an election year when "what about Chicago?" was a dog whistle for racists, Chance the Rapper took the world to a church on the Southside. As Xanax and mumble rap synthesized the airwaves, Frank Ocean dyed his hair and delivered an astutely emotional album — and the film Moonlight admirably displayed the beauty and complexity of those types of emotions in black men. Not to mention Beyoncé's drink of choice earlier in the year, and Donald Glover's awakening to close it out. The best projects of the year were explorations of love that served as roadmaps and guides for how to push through these tough times — perhaps none more acutely than Insecure. HBO's latest hit has succinctly captured what it's like to love a black millennial.
The show follows the friendship of two young black women, Issa and Molly, as they navigate their relationships with men, one monogamous and some casual. The show is about love. And a lot of the show's fans first engage with it by loving its creator, the quirky and unique Issa Rae.
To love someone like Issa Rae is to love a millennial black woman who's struggled with her identity and the perception of her blackness. This was proven through the show's very inception. Growing up in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles after having spent most of her childhood in a white suburb of Maryland, Rae often felt the pressure of fitting into a narrow definition of blackness that she wasn't comfortable with — hence the two summations of her life experiences being named Insecure and Awkward Black Girl (Rae's critically acclaimed YouTube series that lead to her HBO deal).
This generation seems to struggle with that type of racial identity crisis more than any other before it. With the transformative power of the internet — kids are no longer beholden to the influences of just their segmented neighborhoods — and a media-driven emphasis on cultural diversity as America progresses (clumsily) toward harmony, one drawback seems to be that black kids are being teased for "acting white" now more than ever.
For someone suffering through a similar struggle, the mere existence of Insecure means there are people out there who they can wholly empathize with, feel connected to, and love as they'd wish to be loved themselves.
On the flip side, though, to love someone like Issa Dee, the show's fictionalized version of Issa Rae, is to love someone who's too young to understand exactly what that word means in the first place. This type of predicament was best illustrated early on in the show's second episode, during a telling but understated scene shared between Issa and her closest friend, Molly, played by Yvonne Orji. While listening to Issa vent about her issues with her boyfriend, Molly simply responds with "I like Lawrence." Issa claps back with "bitch, I love him" — but then proceeds to fantasize about what it'd be like to have someone else, someone who can "put it down" and "blow [her] back out."
Insecure captured how being with a millennial like Issa Dee — someone who lacks the emotional intelligence to see love through without distractions, someone who chalks her best friend's relationship problems up to her having a "broken pussy" — can prove to be painful at times. Throughout humorous and somewhat tragic stories of love sought and love lost, the show proved that while there's momentary satisfaction in relieving an "itch" one "needed to scratch," true fulfillment is found in companionship — a lesson young people struggle to learn every day.
While that type of youthful misguidance isn't particular to African-Americans, it can feel particularly detrimental, as black folks tend to treat love as a rescue from an otherwise hateful world. Issa venting to Lawrence, her boyfriend and confidant, about her co-workers "having secret white meetings" and "sending secret white emails" behind her back is an example of this type of romantic reprieve.
If Issa's betrayal of Lawrence despite that reprieve was a lesson in how poorly built millennials are to handle relationships emotionally, their issues at home captured how young people aren't really set-up all that well to handle relationships financially either. In not being able to find a full-time job despite having a solid degree, then having to take a part-time gig at Best Buy, all while searching for motivation to develop some vague idea for a phone app, Lawrence's situation was probably the most frustratingly millennial financial crisis one can imagine.
So frustrating, in part, due to the fact that black millennials often feel validated for having earned a degree in the first place despite the oppressive obstacles in their way, as the show alluded to in a scene where Issa and Molly get together with some old friends from college. Very few people are capable of making it work with a companion dealing with that type of disappointment — even fewer who are under the age of 30.
Although Issa, the character, handled her relationship with Lawrence and his struggles foolishly, Issa, the writer, scripted a scenario that brilliantly depicted what it's like to be young, broke, black, and by the side of someone longing for more — someone with big dreams, but little direction.
This year, there were shows like Atlanta, another Donald Glover contribution, that played with what it's like to be black and broke, or black and young. The 90s were wrought with films that depicted what it's like to be black and in love, or black and in South Central. What made Insecure's inaugural season in 2016 so special was its ability to capture what it's like to be black and broke and young and in love and in South Central all in one remarkably authentic story.
During a year in which people of color were told repeatedly that they didn't matter, black millennials especially, it was exciting and damn near thirst quenching to see characters on screen who looked, lived, and loved as they did — even when those characters made mistakes. Insecure was the magic young black folks tweet about all day, and they're fortunate to have these new characters to grow with throughout the inevitably hectic and challenging stage of life that will be their mid-to-late twenties.
Text Austin Williams
Still from Insecure