I was actually interested in how you met Issa and when you started collaborating.
We had a drama class together, and the Black community at Stanford is pretty tightly knit. We’d both been cast in two of the same productions, and when you act with people, it’s almost like being at camp. You bond over this shared experience. For Colored Girls in particular brought us together. [Laughs] I’m laughing ’cause it was kind of a shitshow. The play was funny–not the play itself–but that experience. She was also very interested in behind-the-scenes stuff and wanting to provide more opportunities for artists of color. That’s really how it started. Us being like, “Let’s take matters into our own hands. Let’s start producing and writing and directing plays and musicals for people of color at Stanford.”After we graduated, it evolved into Awkward Black Girl.
Oh yeah, that’s where I first encountered you! As Nina. What was your experience like on set and with the other actors? When you went into it, did you know it would end up being what it was?
No! I knew that it was special, but I did not know that it would end up being a movement and a phenomenon. At the height of Awkward Black Girl, Issa and I would get recognized at the most random places. I remember being in Chicago and somebody was like, “Nina!” I cannot believe that in the middle of Chicago somebody recognized me and wanted to know about the webseries. So no, we didn’t anticipate it being that big, but at that point we were in a really bad place as far as Black content was concerned. Particularly for Black women, there were no options. And I think what Issa represented–and still does–is a version of Black beauty that hadn’t been celebrated. If you have a light-skinned woman with a looser texture of hair, longer hair, or features that are closer to a Eurocentric standard, a lot of people in Hollywood find that to be more attractive and more castable. Just by virtue of Issa not being that, of her being dark-skinned, having short natural hair, being a black nerd–not stereotypically cool. It really resonated with a lot of women around the world who just didn’t see themselves [in pop culture]. The show was symbolic of a shift to celebrate different forms of Black beauty, but also it was covering Black nerds and awkward Black people that we hadn’t seen before. It was empowering for a lot of people because we didn’t go through gatekeepers. We did it ourselves. It was very entrepreneurial and inspiring on that level, as well.
Was your relationship with Issa and other Black women whom you hold near and dear, the source of your portrayal of friendship among Black women in Girls Trip?
Oh, definitely! I don’t write stuff without drawing from a real place. I don’t know how people do that. Even if it’s something that’s totally different than me, I try to find something in it that I relate to, but with Girls Trip, it wasn’t hard because that’s my life. I told Will Packer and the director, Malcolm Lee, that I had to write this movie. I was like, “There’s nobody in Hollywood that is more this movie than I am,” and I really, really meant that. I had been wanting to do a fun-party-sisterhood-Black women-movie forever. It’s really hard to sell those types of movies because you can’t prove that they’re going to make money. With this one, it was already set up, and Will Packer is such an amazing, prolific producer that people trusted that he could do it. I really wanted the opportunity to do it because this is my life. I’m the type of Black woman that hangs with other Black women and really loves and understands Black culture and what we go through. I thought all of those things mattered if you’re going to write a movie about Black friendship.
I read your essay in Cosmopolitan where you were talking about taking meetings a few years ago. I was wondering what’s it like being a Black woman navigating Hollywood, being in these spaces, trying to sell your work, and knowing your worth.
Well, I will say, when I started Awkward Black Girl, it was really hard. Because nobody was looking for Black content. It took Awkward Black Girl, it took Empire, Black-ish, and all of Shonda [Rhimes]’s shows to prove that not only could Black women be the leads of shows, but that there was an audience for it. Now, it is a lot easier for me to pitch stuff, but there are still limitations. The reason I say that is because every new project or pitch that I take out, I’m always doing something with Black people in it because that’s my passion and that’s what I would like to do. Every time I take a project, I still have to explain to people, “Trust me, there’s an audience for this.” I joke with my friends who are Black writers and directors and artists trying to make a living, about how hard it is sometimes to justify an idea that involves Black people that’s actually really basic and mainstream and so obvious to us that there’s an audience for it. But then a white person will pitch the most obscure, weird, no-audience-having idea ever and they’re like, “Sure!” We’re like, “Really?! That got bought!? But I couldn’t do a thing about Black women living together.” [Laughs] Luckily there are people who are smart and decide to take chances. But there are still people that I pitch to who just don’t get it. I can tell you stories for days, I’ve heard crazy things come from these execs.