According to a 2016 study, only a third of TV speaking roles are played by non-white actors and only a quarter go to women. Queer characters are practically non-existent and show up less than 2 percent of the time. Basically, media is hyper-saturated with stories about straight white people doing straight white things. It's rare to find an outlet or story that puts people of color—let alone queer women of color—front and center. Shows like Insecure and Jane the Virgin began to reclaim the spotlight, but for those without TVs, let alone an HBO subscription, these stories can still remain out of reach. Brown Girls, a new webseries from writer Fatimah Asghar and filmmaker Sam Q. Bailey, is about to be the beacon of accessibility and hope we've been waiting for.
The show follows two women: Leila, a young South Asian woman played by Nabila Hossain, who is exploring her queerness for the first time, and her best friend Patricia (Sonia Denis), a black musician working through her commitment issues. They lean hard on each other as they explore their 20-something lives in Chicago. And while the series has already been compared to Broad City and Girls, presumably for its female-driven comedy, Asghar says it's not a response to the two more mainstream comedies. It's something else entirely.
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BROADLY: How did the series get started? Where did the idea for it come from?
Fatimah Asghar: I had the idea for the series in the fall of 2015. I was just thinking about my relationships and my friendships, especially my best friend Jamila Woods. You know how you're with your friends and you can like sit down and watch a TV show together and be like, "That's you! And that's me! And that's our show!" Just feeling like we didn't always get to see that because the way that women of color are portrayed in the media, you don't often see two women of color from two racial backgrounds being friends. You are usually seeing them in competition with each other, either for like a love interest or for their career. I wanted to create a show that highlighted the texture of our friendship. [The series] is in some ways like a love letter to the different artistic and queer communities of color that I found my voice in [in Chicago].
Sam Q. Bailey: [Asghar] invited me to the reading and like three pages in, or maybe not even that much, I remember writing down a note to someone sitting next to me, "I have to direct this." Sometimes you hear stuff or see things that you wish you wrote. I was like "Oh man, this speaks so clearly to my core and my soul."
What was the most exciting part about production?
Bailey: I love being on set. I run my sets a little different, it's definitely a little more "hippy-dippy," which I'm OK with! There are like crystals on the craft foods table; everyone is very loving to each other. Being able to work as hard as we did but also laugh and have fun and appreciate each other. It was a crew of people who really reflected the stories they were telling—like our DP was a dope queer woman, her girlfriend was the set designer, black men were doing sound. It was such a beautifully mixed and textured crew, which I've been lucky to curate for myself.
Asghar: I was teaching a program this summer with teens, teens who were poets and artists. One of my favorite days was when we brought them on to set. We had like 15 teenagers there. It was a really beautiful day to have them all there feeling really welcome and feeling like they could talk to people.
I'm writing or directing roles that I wanted to play or that I wanted to read or be a part of.
Tell me about your audience. Who are you making the series for? Who do you want to see it? People always say that they write for people like them, but when you belong to a marginalized group, there's this pressure to not alienate anyone.
Bailey: I'm writing and directing for me. I'm writing or directing roles that I wanted to play or that I wanted to read or be a part of. In that, it does represent a lot of people, a lot of young women of color who are artists. I think it resonates with people that we're telling our own stories and being really specific, when we are that detailed and personal in our work. It reaches a bigger audience. So yes, there has been an outpouring of support from people of color but I've also seen like white dudes who like the filmmaking of it. Or who are talking about it. And that's exciting.
Asghar: Yeah, I think that's right: using the personal to get to the universal. I often feel like the more specific a story is, the more universal it feels. Because it feels real. It feels authentic. When I write things, I'm often like, "What would my younger self have needed to see? What would have saved me at this point in my life?" And often I think I try to make art that speaks to that void. So I write for people like me. But that doesn't mean like me racially, but just like they felt like I do or did at that point in my life. In a real way, I intended for my art communities in Chicago to see this. I wanted to do them justice and feel like this is real.
I'm really curious about the choice of a webseries format. What went into deciding that would be the medium? It feels like webseries were really a thing five or six years ago, so it's interesting to see that they still exist but with higher production value. It's very different now.
Asghar: A webseries gave us the freedom of control and distribution. We really wanted to make sure we were getting it out to people we really cared about for free. Just being able to shoot a webseries and not have to go through the big, long process of trying to get it picked up and be in all these meetings, was great. I also think the form of a webseries is great. I love being able to watch a ten-minute episode between doing work and not feel guilty for watching a whole half hour or hour.
I wanted to create something that was joyous and celebratory of people of color and how the joys of being from these communities and not just the tragic parts of it. I was asking myself, "Could I write a world where I gave every single character a happy ending?" I think in a webseries I can—I can give them messiness, I can give them struggle, I can give them real things. And I can also give them joy and love and happiness. With a webseries there isn't that network need for drama or heartbreak in the same kind of way. That's super freeing. And it's really important that people get to see themselves not as tragic characters, especially when they're queer people of color. That they get to be shown as happy.
I feel like our communities on the internet are stronger than ever. We're combating it through humor and calling it out.
Bailey: A webseries has always been a way for me to see myself in media in way that hasn't always been possible. I've always been a fan of work on the internet because it levels the playing field. For me, as a black girl in filmmaking, a webseries is my way into learning so much about the filmmaking process. We could shoot it and still get the chance to figure it out, but we can still bring the same level of love and attention that an indie film has.
A lot of queer artists and artists of color make art that almost entirely exists online. They're prolific and creating beautiful stuff on the internet. It's such a critical space. But at the same time, it's like battleground for cruel comments and trolling and hate-mongering. Do you think queer artists of color can save the internet?
Bailey: The internet, like I said, levels the playing field a lot for a lot of people. A lot of queer people and queer people of color who don't have access to a lot of [filmmaking] equipment all of a sudden are allowed to make those stories and put it on the internet because you can film a movie on your phone. It's interesting to me when we get trolls and really horrible people on the internet who are trying to take that space because they feel like their privileges are being taken away. But I feel like our communities on the internet are stronger than ever. We're combating it through humor and calling it out. So do I think we're going to save the internet? Yeah. Fuck, I hope so. Fati, what do you think?
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Asghar: I mean I really hope so. The internet can be so many things. It's literally everywhere. I've seen the internet be terrible. Like, I've gotten trolls in all my feeds. I've gotten dragged by bigoted people, especially for being queer and Muslim. Oh my god! The amount of people who have come at me and said the most awful things to me! It can be a harmful place, especially if it's where you put all your energy. But it can also be a really amazing place of connection. For a lot of queer artists of color, it is that. And that can really create a saving of the internet.
Brown Girls comes out February 15, and episodes will be available on the show's website and at Open TV.