For black workers in all facets of many corporate industries, two truths tend to exist. There has been progress regarding what voices matter and who gets to be featured on mastheads and positions of leadership (even though that has regressed since the 2020 protests). With elevation comes certain expectations, often leading to Black workers repressing certain things about individual aspects of themselves and overlooking prejudices to “go along and get along.” The Other Black Girl, a ten-episode series adapted from the hit 2021 and co-developed by author Zakiya Dalila Harris and Rashida Jones, has a sci-fi element to it that becomes more apparent as the series untwists the overall mystery that lies inside the corporate satire.
While there’s that element, it shows the many ways minorities are expected to mute themselves, grit their teeth, and assimilate into systems made for them to operate inside a cleanly pressed, “socially acceptable box. In the New York publishing company Wagner Books, Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel) is the lone Black employee. She’s used to his setting as she went to college in Connecticut, where there weren’t many Black students. As a self-proclaimed book nerd, she’s determined to work inside the system to make Black literature more accessible and abundant.
As she walks by the main hallway, there are pictures of editors and only one Black editor, Kendra Rae Philips (Cassi Maddox), who disappeared in the early 1990s. The show’s opening scene shows a young Philips trying to escape the Wagner Books building and suddenly being advanced by random strangers. Before we begin to unpack those sequences, we see Nella’s day is a whole gambit of microaggressions and lack of sensitivity by her boss, Vera (Bellamy Young), feeble attempts at allyship, and overall job pressures. It would be nice for Nella to have somebody to confide in on the inside other than venting to her best friend, Malaika (Brittany Adebumola).
One day, her prayers are answered. Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray) starts as an editorial assistant with a Harlem pedigree at the company. It feels like it’s a match made in heaven. They love the same book and author, Diana Gordon’s (Garcelle Beauvais) Burning Heart and they seem to share a common goal of improving the workplace by having each other’s back. However, this dynamic becomes cleverly muddled when Nella makes needed edits of Wagner's prized author, a white man who goes out of his way to place every stereotype in the book. Sure, Nella is immediately urged to look the other way on this for the good of the company (and Vera’s bottom line), but her need to do what’s right is unshaken.
Having somebody you can identify with to back you up in the room feels good. Well, it doesn’t exactly go down that way. Even as Hazel tells Nella to speak up, she immediately backs down when Nella says what she needs to say. This interaction reveals The Other Black Girl's best parts and their complex relationship. Something is very off about Nella – at the same time, she’s speaking a solidarity cadence to Nella; Hazel is also trying hard to make it feel that she’s not trying to ruffle any feathers. Before Nella pulls away, Hazel does a complete 180 and sticks up for her in a board room meeting.
The series doesn’t strive to pit Black women against one another – it’s more complex than that. The Other Black Girl’s critique is most effective when it focuses on the structures that make it so Black people have to have competing views on how to move onward and upward. In many cases, Black people must fit a specific type of caricature to advance. Then, it looks into particular situations where Blackness is placed front and center only to provide the idea that the same infrastructure is all about diversity. When the fallout from the leaked book hits Wagner, the company founder Richard (Eric McCormack) suddenly has the present mind to put diverse initiatives forward and place Nella’s ideas and Hazel front and center.
We all this the way to blunt the backlash of a dumb double down, but it doesn’t make it less jarring to see this play out on screen. As Hazel and Nella’s “friendship” gets stronger outside of work, that’s where the cracks of the horror mystery begin to form. Why does it seem like Hazel came out of nowhere? Adebumola hilariously plays the role of the suspicious friend with whom many horror lovers would identify.
While finding out the secret weapon of a supposed secret society and a big twist in the later episodes provides some humorous set pieces, it slightly takes away from the intelligent things The Other Black Girl is speaking about. In recent films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Nina DeLacosta’s remake of Candyman, the narratives had space for creepiness. Here, while some things work, other slight jump scares feel they are placed there as a bridge.
There is always strength in numbers, but it’s hard when the figures are still not in your favor. Why do Black women give up so much of themselves for the promise of a piece (not the whole pie) of success? It’s a poignant and relevant question The Other Black Girl asks for those who are still awaiting an answer.