Issa Rae Talks Turning Down Hollywood

Issa Rae arrives at the PEOPLE "Ones to Watch" Party at The Line Hotel on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for People/AP Images)

Most are familiar with the director, producer, and overall talent Issa Rae, as she captivated the hearts and interests of black girls everywhere with her digital creation, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl back in 2011, but in a recent interview with New York Times Magazine, fans got a closer look at the quirkiness that is Issa Rae.

[Related: Issa Rae Creator of The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl Debuts New Series]

In the lengthy profile piece, Rae opens up about her childhood, her HBO deal, her pilot venture with Shondaland producer Shonda Rhimes and her hopes to bring more black content creators to the forefront.

The article highlights Rae’s journey into Hollywood and her efforts to protect her ABG work from any unwanted changes that may have made her complex culture series less black.

Jenna Wortham of the New York Times Magazine writes:

Her own show was an instant hit online in 2011, and soon a number of networks and production companies expressed interest in adapting ‘‘Awkward Black Girl’’ for prime-time TV. To Rae’s disappointment, most wanted to completely rework the show. Rae recalls a phone conversation with a network executive who wanted to make it into a pan-racial franchise operation, starting with ‘‘Awkward Indian Boy.’’ Another suggested Rae recast the lead with a lighter-skinned actress with long, straight hair — in essence, the exact opposite of Rae. She turned down the offers.

Although major networks presented Rae with promising opportunities to grow her brand and monetize her pre-existing fan base, many failed to consider her need to stay true to programming centered around non-traditional African American characters.

‘‘They wanted to make it as broad as possible, broadly niche, but I was like: No, that’s not what this is about,’’ Rae told to the magazine.



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Feature: Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes, born January 13, 1970, in University Park, Illinois, is the first African-American woman to create and executive-produce a Top 10 network series—the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. She is also the creator of its spin-off, Private Practice, and the political thriller Scandal. Before these series, Rhimes penned such film screenplays as Crossroads and HBO’sIntroducing Dorothy Dandridge.
On January 13, 1970, Shonda Rhimes was born in the suburban University Park area of Illinois. She is the youngest of six siblings. Her father is a university administrator, and her mother is a college professor who earned two doctorates after her children were grown. (Rhimes’ mom is supposedly the role model for Grey’s Anatomy character Miranda Bailey.) An academic overachiever growing up, Rhimes received her BA from Dartmouth College in English literature and creative writing. After a short stint in advertising, she enrolled in the Writing for Screen & Television program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, earning her MFA. She excelled there too, earning a writing fellowship.
Soon after grad school, Rhimes sold her first screenplay, Human Seeking Same, about an older black woman looking for love in the personals. The film never got made. But it did lead to her writing the 2002 feature film Crossroadswith Britney Spears and The Princess Diaries 2 with Anne Hathaway. Completing the teleplay for HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which was made into a film starring Halle Berry, elevated Rhimes’ status in the business.
After 9/11, Rhimes found herself thinking more about motherhood than movies and within a year adopted baby girl Harper Lee. The new mom took in a lot of TV while staying home with her infant, prompting her to take a crack at writing a pilot. The result was Grey’s Anatomy, a drama about a bunch of sexy young doctors in a Seattle hospital. Some of her inspiration for writing a medical show came from her enjoyment of watching real-life surgeries on TV and nostalgia for her time working as a candy striper in adolescence. Premiering in 2005, the show is going into its 10th season in 2013–2014 and won a Golden Globe for Rhimes for Best Television Series—Drama. It also led in 2007 to Rhimes creating the spin-off Private Practice, which lasted for six seasons.

2012 was a big year for Rhimes, as she adopted a second baby girl, Emerson Pearl, and launched another hit show, Scandal, on April 5, 2012. The show stars Kerry Washington as a fixer in a Washington, D.C., crisis management firm and has plenty of political twists and turns. It has been a ratings hit that creates much social-media buzz weekly.


All of her efforts have garnered Rhimes much recognition, including several GLAAD Media and NAACP Image Awards for her tackling important issues in race and sexuality. After the success of Scandal, Rhimes and her production company, ShondaLand, worked on developing the series Lawless for ABC. It revolves around an attorney who returns to her hometown. It’s based on the story of trucker-turned-lawyer Wynona Ward, who provides free services to domestic-violence victims in rural areas. While that show has yet to make to the small screen, Rhimes had better luck with How to Get Away with Murder. This new mystery drama stars Viola Davis as Professor Annalise Keating and will be part of ABC’s Thursday night line-up for fall 2014.


TV audiences can expect many more programs from Rhimes in the future. “I really try to make a show that I would want to watch,” said Rhimes to “If I don’t want to watch it…it doesn’t go in the show.”