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‘Brown Girls’ Is the Future of Television

Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s new web series is a love letter to Chicago — and proof of the continuing power of indie media by women of color

(Open TV)
(Open TV)

When Brown Girls, the web series Chicago poet Fatimah Asghar wrote and cocreated with director-producer Sam Bailey, premiered last Wednesday, Asghar was too nervous to check Twitter. It was Asghar’s best friend, musician Jamila Woods, whose enthusiasm led her to keep refreshing.

“She was sending me tweets that she thought were really great,” Asghar said Friday. “One of the [tweets] she sent me was like, ‘I was at a release party and I’m so inspired and I’m gonna go home and write; anything is possible now.’”

“Things like that really move me … you just wait so long hoping that there’s gonna be a show that resonates with you or looks like you,” Asghar continued. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t even realize how starved I am of not seeing people who look like me until something comes out.”

‘Brown Girls’ (Megan Lee Miller)
‘Brown Girls’ (Megan Lee Miller)

For many viewers, Brown Girls itself is now filling that vacuum. The show is one of several women-of-color-led web series using the medium to tell stories that Hollywood often shuns in favor of narratives driven by more “relatable” characters. The five-episode series, released via indie entertainment incubator Open TV, follows two best friends, Leila (Nabila Hossain) and Patricia (Sonia Denis), as they stumble and laugh their way through their mid-20s. Leila is a South Asian American writer beginning to come to terms with her queerness; Patricia is a black American musician whose family life starts to unravel. The two struggle to find their footing in their careers and relationships, but their friendship keeps them grounded — and helps move them both forward.

Brown Girls is a delight to watch; it is, also, like many of the projects on Open TV, a quietly visionary addition to the landscape of indie media helmed by women of color. Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor of communications at Northwestern University, first conceived of Open TV as a research study to test alternative forms of television development for work “from artists most often left out of commercial production: queer, trans, and cis-women and people of color.” Not every Open TV series is intended for the traditional development pipeline, and offering alternatives to the standard 30-minute pilot process creates opportunities for artists who may not otherwise have access to the resources necessary to produce a series. In addition to Brown Girls, Open TV hosts forthcoming series like Brujos, “a queer-of-color, radically politicized web series following four gay Latino doctoral candidates — that are also witches,” and Afternoon Snatch, “an unapologetically queer web comedy about heartbreak and the importance of community.”

Brown Girls is in conversation with series outside its platform, too — and beyond juggernauts like The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl and Broad City. Subscription streaming site Black&Sexy TV offers a slew of indie comedies and romantic shows that follow the lives of young black people: RoomieLoverFriends, Sexless, and Hello Cupid all caught BET’s eye. On YouTube, Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez costarred in Rachael Holder’s (now curiously vanished) series, I Love Lucy & Bekka, which offered a funny, realistic portrayal of female friendship not rooted in competition.

A fully realized, loving friendship is also a hallmark of Brown Girls. The interactions between Leila and Patricia are tender, even and especially when they’re mocking one another. In one episode, Leila plucks Patricia’s eyebrows as they get ready to go out. The scene is unglamorous, routine. But it feels familiar and warm, like walking into a friend’s apartment after a long day of work. “I often don’t often get to see relationships between women of color from different backgrounds represented in film and TV,” Asghar said. So she was intentional about the decision to prioritize the women’s friendship over their romantic encounters: “I really wanted the most important relationship to be their friendship,” she said. “The real love story is them, and nothing else.”

Leila and Patricia’s friendship was inspired by Asghar’s relationship with Woods, who both sings the theme song and appears in Episode 4 performing “VRY BLK” from her debut album, HEAVN. The two, now 27, met their freshman year at Brown University in a preorientation program for students of color. After graduation, Asghar, who grew up between Cambridge and New York, moved to Chicago partly due to Woods, who spoke highly of the city’s uniquely collaborative artistic scene. Since moving to Chicago, Asghar has become an active member of the city’s poetry and education circles, even inviting her students to the Brown Girls set to learn about production. Woods, herself a poet and educator with local youth organization Young Chicago Authors, released her debut solo album in July after years of working with artists like Chance the Rapper. Both Asghar and Woods are members of Dark Noise, a multigenre artistic collective. (Other members make a cameo in the show.)

Fatimah Asghar (Megan Lee Miller)
Fatimah Asghar (Megan Lee Miller)

Brown Girls, shot entirely in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, is in many ways both a love letter to the city and a product of its many artists. From a framed poster of Chance on an apartment wall to clothing by local labels like Hero/Black and Samantha Jo’s Melanin + Cocoa Butter, the show casts Chicago as its own character. When Asghar hosted a reading of the script in February 2016, she made sure to invite artists and writers she admired from around the city — including 28-year-old director Sam Bailey, a friend Asghar had worked with before on projects like photo series and live poetry readings. Bailey’s first web series, You’re So Talented, which follows an out-of-work Chicago artist trying to make sense of the world around her, was also developed by Open TV. Brown Girls offered Asghar and Bailey the opportunity to not only work together on a formal project, but also a chance to think about how to spotlight the city itself alongside the show’s main characters.

“When Chicago is portrayed in stuff it’s meant to be a different city. Things that are shot in Chicago” — like Empire, for example — “are meant to … be like New York or wherever,” Asghar said. “Or [you’ll see] a lot of shots of downtown and Lake Shore and the Bean, which are all great places, but are not really what I think my day-to-day Chicago experience feels like. What we really wanted to do was capture the royalness of everyday Chicago.”

Brown Girls portrays the city’s vibrancy from a neighborhood that feels relevant to both the show’s creators and its audiences — millennials (of color) who are far more likely to relate to two characters accidentally making out next to a giant trash can than kissing at the top of the Sears Tower. Being in your 20s is complicated and weird; web series like Brown Girls reflect both general millennial experiences and young women of color’s specific realities.

“I think Brown Girls is an excellent case study for the idea that indie and short-form TV can supplement or even enhance the development pipeline for longer-form TV,” Christian said. “You’ve already seen this with Broad City, High Maintenance, and Issa Rae’s production.”

Asghar counts Issa Rae and Insecure among her influences and inspirations, as well as Donald Glover’s Atlanta. “The friendships that happen between those men in Atlanta is one of my favorite things to witness,” she said. “There’s always been people who have been inspiring to me in terms of their path and how they created their own media.”

Even as calls for more inclusive TV help ensure that shows like Insecure and Atlanta can break through Hollywood gatekeeping, writers and actors and directors of color remain a small minority in the mainstream television landscape. For Asghar and Bailey (and countless other women of color writing web series), the answer to that challenge was to look beyond a single Hollywood script and toward their own communities instead.

“I’ve been really surprised by the reception that Brown Girls has gotten so far. When I made it, I kinda thought it was just gonna be me and my friends watching it in our rooms,” Asghar said. “To see the way that people have been responding to it has just [made me think,] no, people want shows like this. People want to see people of color in media, and it’s not fair [of studios] to fall behind that argument of ‘Oh, this doesn’t relate to anyone now.’

“If they’re not gonna let us in, we can just make our own work.”