Issa Rae’s Unsecure Many stories were not seen on television. It aired over 34 episodes. AfrolatinidadBlack masculinity and mental well-being; oral sex power dynamics
Rae says that precedents have been as crucial as the content in front. Several recent studies have shown that Black creatives are underrepresented in nearly every aspect of filmmaking, while interview after interview has revealed how they are often ignored in writers rooms, sidelined into “diversity” slots without upward mobility and shut out of top decision-making positions. It has caused a massive undervaluation of Black-led films and onscreen portrayals of Blackness to feel foreign to Black people’s actual lives.
Where? Unsecure In 2016, Rae was approved by HBO to air the show. Rae is a new showrunner. Unsecure It was not only a show that would be a success, but also an opportunity for Black writers, directors and editors to build their credibility and gain experience in a highly competitive industry. “That was a super conscious effort: It was like ‘Oh, the door is open to everybody—come on in,’” Rae tells TIME. “If we only get one season, at least you can say you have this experience and get on to the next show.”
Prentice Penny and Jay Ellis (from left) attend Insecure Season 5 premiere at Kenneth Hahn Park in Los Angeles on October 21, 2021.
Jeff Kravitz—FilmMagic for HBO/Getty Images
Unsecure Of course, the show’s debut season didn’t last long. It was an instant hit on HBO, dominating every social media conversation each Sunday. As the show wraps up with its fifth season, premiering Oct. 24, the impacts of Rae’s emphasis on growth and mentoring are already being felt, as a veritable constellation of power players who cut their teeth on Unsecure Are fawning out over the Hollywood landscape. Similar to shows such as The Simpsons And Geeks and Freaks served as essential breeding grounds for talent, it’s likely that the reverberations of the Unsecure The impact of the incubator will last for many years.
“It was its own kind of school experience—on inclusion, on giving opportunities, on developing authentic stories, on fighting for untraditional locations,” says Deniese Davis, who started out as an assistant on the show’s pilot and now runs her own production company. “I can’t foresee any of us not wanting to replicate some small part of what made Unsecure so special.”
Learn on the Job
At the beginning Unsecure It was mostly led by first-timers. Rae (a first TV show creator); Prentice Penny (a first TV showrunner); Melina Matsoukas (directing the first episode of narration TV); Amy Aniobi (a first TV producer). “It was scary, and obviously you have moments of imposter syndrome,” says Aniobi. “But at the end of the day, how else do you learn but on the job? We had the safety to fail: We all had each other’s backs because we were learning together.”
Given this mentality, Rae and the rest of the creative team tried to fill out their staff not based on experience—which they found was often a part of the gatekeeping that kept doors closed to young voices of color—but based on hunger, talent and fit. Rae admits that HBO was often resistant to this approach. “I’d hear, ‘This director doesn’t have much experience. Are you sure?’ It’s up to me to be like, ‘Yes I’m sure. I’m willing to put my name behind the fact that I’m sure.’”
Behind the scenes with “Insecure” is Amy Aniobi, producer
Deniese is an example for someone who would never have been hired by Hollywood under the established hiring policies. She had been hustling for years for low-budget online video projects—including with Rae on the web series The MisAdventures of Awkward Black Girl—Previously, he had not worked in television. The hiring process for the Unsecure pilot on HBO in 2016, she was told by a producer that she didn’t have enough experience to join: that “the way TV pilots work, I just can’t bring in an outside nonwriting producer, because we don’t know there’s a series yet,” Davis remembers hearing.
Davis took the assistant role, although he continued to produce. “Melina, Prentice and Issa never regarded me as an assistant. They all said, ‘Deniese is a producer, and allowed me to help however I could,” she says. Davis was appointed an official producer shortly after the series had been picked up. “Issa opened the door for me. I don’t know how else I would have made that jump from the indie low-budget world to TV,” she says.
Recent interview conducted by Made byPenny, a magazine says UnsecureIt asked local agents and managers to help it find young creatives. The contest also allowed young people to submit edited rap video submissions in order to qualify as PAs. “It’s not intuitive—but it showed they had initiative to write a rap, talk about their skills, shoot a video, edit it together,” Aniobi says. “All those things showed us: ‘You’re not just a PA, you’re creative yourself.’” One of the contest winners, Kindsey Young, announced on her first day on set that she wanted to join the writer’s room one day. Her place among the writers would come two years later.
Do You Understand What This Is? Growth
The first step was to get new people in the door. The next stage would be to build a culture of growth (as Natasha Rothwell’s character Kelli expressed in a widely-shared GIF). Syreeta Singleton, who started as Penny’s assistant and a writer’s room PA, says that people were consistently teaching their jobs to those one level down, “because the thought was that we’re all going to move up.”
Issa Rae and Deniese Davis appear as panelists on a brunch panel for creators during Miami Art Week.
Cindy Ord—Getty Images for Samsung
Singleton was already sharpening her writing skills before she started working at UnsecureAfter a stint of babysitting, to PR work, she was unfamiliar with the concept of a writers’ room before joining the show. Penny encouraged Penny and her assistants to write and pitch ideas and took her to high level meetings.
“Prentice and Issa were both adamant about making sure people grew on this show: they know we’re all there because we want to write,” Singleton says. She moved up from assistant to script coordinator to story editor—and even wrote one of the series’ most climactic episodes, 2020’s “Lowkey Movin On,’” in which Issa finally throws a block party in Inglewood.
Where? Unsecure Singleton stated that Penny, Rae and Penny advocated for Singleton to be employed on other programs while they were in the middle of seasons. She quickly landed writing jobs through her connections. Black Monday And Central ParkShe has a deepened her industry knowledge.
“I’ve watched [Singleton] grow from season to season, as one of the people I would be the most excited to get scenes from, to watching her pen her own episode,” Rae says. “To see her grow in confidence has been really stellar to witness.”
The emphasis on mentoring didn’t help just the mentees, but also the show overall. Rae says that at the show’s beginning, she received plenty of pressure to cater the show to the white gaze; to elevate the role of Issa’s white colleague Frieda (Lisa Joyce), for instance. Such framing techniques are not new. Atlantic article described the history of the “negotiated authenticity” of Black television, in which Black screenwriters have been tasked for years to create a version of Black life that is acceptable to white showrunners, studio executives and viewers.
Nurturing writers within their walls Unsecure was able to develop a pool of young talent who had practiced writing in the show’s voice, and could step right into full-time writing roles with authenticity and humor when more veteran staff writers moved on to other projects. “Even when the room had turnover, we weren’t playing catch-up: having that pipeline meant that we were getting new voices in the room who already understood the show,” Aniobi says.
Directors get their shot
Kevin Bray is the director on “Insecure”
Rae also made it a priority to hire directors at varying career stages, giving them opportunities to expand the industry’s narrow conception of them. Kevin Bray was one of them. He had worked on Middlebrow Dramas such as Franklin & Bash And White Collar. “She took a chance on me because I was a kind of dyed-in-the-wool network hourlong director—but she thought maybe I was more than the sum,” Bray says. “It paid off for her and for me: It kind of reintegrated me into the forefront of youth culture.” Since then, Bray has directed episodes of Americans Shameless And Succession
Bray claims that Rae was a model of hard work and dedication on the set. “I believe she wanted to give the location fees to the people she said was representing. The powers that be, the money people, thought that was not the best route to take,” Bray recalls. “But it actually yielded more success because it had integrity to it.”
Other aspiring directors would follow their lead over the years. UnsecureExperience in bigger projects like MatsoukasQueen & SlimRegina King (Miami: One nightLiesl Tom (RespectIt is. By season two, Matsoukas felt comfortable enough to have prospective directors shadow her to gain experience—including Kerry Washington, who was just beginning to direct for television. Former Scandal The star and producer, who directed the two previous episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, will be directing the inaugural episode on a new Hulu series. Reasonable Doubt
The next episode
Left to right: Jay Ellis, Jay Ellis, Issa Rae and Jay Matsoukas celebrate Insecure’s second season with a Block Party in Inglewood (Calif.) on July 15, 2017.
Randy Shropshire—Getty Images/HBO
In the past, Black creatives in Hollywood have expressed frustration about finding steady work even after their big breaks, largely because they weren’t considered for non-Black shows, and the number of Black shows was so limited. Today, things are changing. Unsecure wraps up, it’s hard to find an alumni of the show that hasn’t already dived into another significant venture. Matsoukas owns her production company, and has recently signed a deal to produce a movie with MGM. Penny co-created and executive-produced HBO’s Sam Jay: Take a break; both he and actor/writer/producer Natasha Rothwell have deals with Disney’s Onyx Collective to create projects for Hulu.
Regina Hicks, a co-executive producer on UnsecureHe went on to create with. UpshawsThe breakout Netflix sitcom, “The Friend,” has been renewed for its second season. Kindsey, the PA turned writer, now writes for Grand CrewNBC’s helmed show, titled???? Unsecure Phil Augusta Jackson, an alumnus. Deniese Davis founded her own production company, Reform Media Group, which she hopes will nurture the next class of industry changemakers—”the Black female Jerry Bruckheimers and Brian Grazers of the world”—while Aniobi has created Tribe, a networking and mentorship program mostly for writers of color.
Stars of the series now hold producing and director credits, including Jay Ellis and Rothwell. Musicians who had their songs featured in episodes saw career advancements from Kari Fax to Rico Nasty. “It was early on in my career, and a lot of people watched the ‘Poppin’ music video, and that was like a huge moment for me,” Rico Nasty said in a statement to HBO about one of her songs that made it onto the show.
Gleichzeitig, there has been a surge in Black-related projects on the film and TV screens. Unsecure’s inception, lessening Rae’s burden as a rare Black talent hub. There’s been Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, Robin Thede’s Sketches by Black Lady, Lena Waithe’s It Chi and 50 Cent’s Energie series—and now joining them is Rap Sh*tAn upcoming HBO Max TV series based on the rise of City Girls, a Miami hip-hop group. Rae herself is executive-producing the show—and this year, she tapped Singleton, Penny’s former assistant, to be a first time showrunner on the project.
“I was so taken aback: I was not prepared for that,” Singleton says of her hiring. Rae, for her part, says that young writers of color should get used to claiming roles they’ve never held before. “They don’t take chances on us: they take chances on white men constantly, based on a little short or something,” Rae says. “Things have changed now that we’re in more positions of power to take chances on each other.”
Singleton currently films Rap Sh*t in Miami, and learning on the fly—just as Rae did in the first season of Unsecure—while using all the knowledge that she picked up for years working with Rae and Penny. Singleton hopes that they will continue to live the same values of improvement and growth. “My assistant is the same age I was when I was Prentice’s assistant—and I spent so much of that time learning from him and writing because he was like, ‘this is the time to be sharpening those skills and finding your voice,’” she says. “My assistant, the PAs and the entire crew: they’re in this environment for a reason, so come ask me as many questions as you want.”
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