Literary legend Toni Morrison once called racism a distraction. “It keeps you from doing your work,” she said during a 1975 speech. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Black people must contend with everything from blatant acts of racist terrorism to small microaggressions that filter into our everyday lives. Instead of existing, you find yourself in a state of constant emotional regulation and survival, one that is exhaustingly unfair and unsustainable. For people of color and Black folks navigating predominantly white spaces, this constant state of code-switching and performance can quickly become horrific and soul-sucking.
Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl,” based on Zakiya Dalila Harris’ best-selling novel of the same name, opens with two Black women walking similar paths in different timelines. In 1988, Kendra Rae Phillips (Cassi Maddox) is the sole Black editor at the prestigious Wagner Books in Manhattan. She is distraught when she first appears onscreen, scratching furiously at her scalp and apparently hanging on to her sanity by a thread. In the present day, viewers are introduced to editorial assistant Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel). The only Black employee at Wagner, Nella has become well-equipped to handle the pressures of her role. Her experiences involve overly eager “allies,” a frazzled and oft-condescending boss, Vera (Bellamy Young) and the impending release of a novel riddled with racist rhetoric and stereotypes written by the company’s top (white) author.
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Though Nella is resolved that her isolation and tokenization are the cost of her ambition, she is delighted when Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray), a new editorial assistant who also happens to be Black, is hired. Nella admires Hazel’s boldness and self-assuredness, immediately gravitating toward her. The pair strike up an almost instant sisterhood. It is a camaraderie Nella has longed for in her professional life.
Unfortunately, things quickly sour between the women after Hazel purposely sabotages Nella, throwing her under the bus during a conversation regarding the racist novel. Meanwhile, some strange occurrences around the office put Nella on edge, making her suspicious of Hazel’s true intentions.
But just as Nella begins to distance herself from Hazel, the newcomer repositions herself as Nella’s ally. She even helps Nella connect with world-renowned author Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais), whose best-selling 1988 novel “Burning Heart” was edited by her then-best friend, Kendra Rae, the frazzled editor we met in the show’s opening scene. This introduction boosts Nella’s career just when she needs it. Still, as Nella and Hazel’s bond solidifies, spilling over into their personal lives, Nella begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable with Hazel’s odd behavior.
The themes in “The Other Black Girl” are as weighty as the mystery surrounding Hazel, and the secrets that ended Diana and Kendra Rae’s friendship back in the day. The series speaks to feelings of othering, powerlessness and kinship. Black people often extend their hands to one another out of recognition and obligation. That is seen here in the instant chemistry and rapport between Nella and Hazel. Yet, because of the structure of their workplace, there is also a simmering competition between the women. Nella feels in solidarity with and simultaneously wary of Hazel.
While unpacking race relations in the workplace, the show also addresses how Black women see themselves and each other. Since Black folks are not a monolith, and we have our own individual ideals concerning beauty, status and class, “The Other Black Girl” asks the audience to think deeply about why certain “types” of Black people are accepted in particular spaces, why others aren’t and what role the Black community has played in perpetuating respectability politics.
While the entire cast is engaging, Murray’s uncanny ability to switch on a dime from nice to nasty underscores the genre-bending whimsy of the show. And Brittany Adebumola’s hilariously brash outbursts as Malakia, Nella’s best friend, makes her another standout here. Infusing these moments of levity with dramatic and horror elements, “The Other Black Girl” walks the same thought-provoking line between terror and comedy that makes Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” so brilliant. These parallels are especially evident in Episode 7, “Caught in the Rapture,” when Nella and Malakia attend Hazel’s hair party at her Harlem brownstone. Since the series is told from Black women’s perspectives over a sumptuous soundtrack that includes artists like Anita Baker, SZA, TLC and Busta Rhymes, it offers something entirely unique to the genre.
Though “The Other Black Girl” works overall, some mystical qualities involving a secret society of Black women are confusing. While some of it comes together, many of these segments lean toward camp and incredulity, saved only by the zippy 30-minute or less run time of the highly binge-able 10-episode season. The magical aspects of the narrative could have been sharpened, or cast aside entirely, for more direct conversations about Black women twisting themselves into someone else’s image to feel worthy, what it truly means to “sell out” and the pain of outgrowing and ending friendships.
While there are some unhinged moments, “The Other Black Girl” is pretty clever. To be human is to have an inherent desire to belong. When that belonging comes with a deeply rooted understanding of specific intricacies and experiences, there is freedom there. Racism continues to cost us so much. Black people, especially Black women, shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything else, especially their authenticity, to succeed.
All 10 episodes of “The Other Black Girl” will begin streaming on Sept. 13 on Hulu.
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