SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Season 1 of “The Other Black Girl,” now streaming on Hulu.
“How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice to succeed?” That’s the question showrunners Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey were seeking to answer when they adapted Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel “The Other Black Girl” for TV with executive producer Rashida Jones.
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And somewhere in the midst of exploring microaggressions and race relations in the workplace, Nella (Sinclair Daniel) finds her answer as she winds up caught in Harris’ fictional sorority of Black women success stories.
“The Other Black Girl” follows Nella, a promising editor’s assistant at the fictional Wagner Books, whose life seems to be on a fast-track to success until she meets Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), the new Black assistant whose style and swagger quickly draws the attention of the higher-up executives in the office.
Where most would assume competition ensues, the two instead forge a friendship under the guise of “seeing each other win.” But beneath the surface, Hazel’s intentions are more sinister than Nella could have imagined.
One of the big changes from Harris’ novel was the duo’s close friendship shown onscreen. In the show’s premiere, titled “They Say I’m Different,” what starts as a promising bond between the two is quickly shattered when Hazel hangs Nella out to dry in front of her boss, after claiming she would support her. Despite the disloyalty, their relationship builds like any other — with trust and encouragement.
But with each seemingly harmless makeover from her new friend Hazel, Nella loses pieces of herself, as she’s slowly molded into a more refined corporate construct — one more like Hazel. The magic hair grease that she uses on her friend’s hair turns out to be the method of mind control Hazel uses to make her friends into palatable professionals.
Nella and Hazel’s bond wasn’t something that was written in Harris’ novel, but was born through the collaboration on set between Daniel and Murray.
“So much of what you see on screen came from what they brought to their characters — especially with Ashleigh, because Hazel was more of a mystery in the book. It was through our conversations with Ashleigh that we realized that Hazel actually wants a real friendship with Nella,” Reddout and Hickey wrote. (The showrunners answered my questions over email, since my having laryngitis prevented me from speaking with them on the phone.)
It’s not long after that when viewers realize that Hazel isn’t working alone. She was placed in Nella’s path on purpose by Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais), the author of Wagner’s 1988 best-selling novel “Burning Heart,” and the head of Harris’ fictional sorority that’s turning Black women into a similar versions of each other.
Certain parts of Nella and Hazel’s relationship are meant to mimic that of lifelong best friends turned enemies, Kendra Rae Phillips (Cassi Maddox), Wagner Books’ only Black editor, and Gordon. As seen in flashbacks, the two worked together on “Burning Heart” shortly before Phillips’ mysterious disappearance.
But diving into the complexities of the foursome’s dynamics, including the hardships that each of them faced during their years climbing the ranks, reveals one major point that’s integral to both timelines: It’s the same story, just set in two different decades. The fact hints at the progress that hasn’t been made in the workplace when it concerns how Black woman are forced to maneuver through office settings, and how whiteness affects those moves.:”The Other Black Girl” makes a trenchant point about emotionally taxing office settings.
“We talked a lot in the writers’ room about how far we’ve come since the 80’s — or not. Each pair of women is reacting to the white system around them in vastly different decades,” Reddout and Hickey said. “But it’s scary — horrific, even — to see the similarities in their experiences, and what these systems are making them sacrifice just to exist. And we loved diving into how each woman reacts to the system, because it’s a different answer each time.”
Perhaps the biggest change from the novel takes place in the show’s twist ending, in which Nella takes the hair grease and presents herself to the office as one of Diana’s girls — an adjustment that was done with the blessing of Harris, who also served as a writer on the show. Diana’s proposal is a test of dedication – if our goal is to change this system, are your values so precious that you can’t stand by me (and my questionable ethics) to do it? Nella’s decision suggests that her answer is nuanced and layered.
Instead of taking the grease and completely falling in line with Diana’s plans that see her taking on an editing role at a high-profile magazine, as she did in Harris’ book, the season finale closes with Nella seemingly joining Diana’s side as she strides back into the Wagner office with a new sleek and polished look — one similar to the women in Hazel and Diana’s circle. But the ruse is revealed to viewers as they watch her pull out a burner and tell someone on the other end, “I’m in. Let’s burn it down,” as she fiddles with a flash drive in her hand.
“The book itself is so special to us, and it strikes such a unique tone. Having Zakiya in the writers’ room was such a blessing because we were able to preserve that tone and gut check any time we diverged from the source material,” the showrunners said. “We really wanted to explore some things that weren’t in the book (specifically rounding out characters like Hazel and Malakia with new and different backstories), and we are so grateful that Zakiya was able to participate and give her blessing.”
They added: “We wanted to differentiate Nella’s decision from everyone else, to show that what she was willing to sacrifice looked different than the previous generation and her contemporaries. We wanted to have the audience see that Nella has learned to ‘play the game,’ but now she knows how to win. And that hopefully her path might help the people coming up after her not have to make the same difficult choice.”
The ending raises the question of what’s to come: What will be Nella’s next move now that she’s taken over the corner office? Reddout and Hickey tease they have “many many” ideas for what Season 2 would look like.
“We really hope to continue to explore the world and to see how far Nella is willing to go with her ‘fake’ persona in order to achieve her goals. She has a new set of goals, a new layer of code-switching, a further distance from her true self,” they said. “Is her ambition still going to be worth it? When you pretend to be someone else for so long, does that false version of you become the truest one? And for there to be a Season 2, hopefully the studios will come up with a fair deal and everyone will be compensated for their hard work.”
The interview with Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey was arranged through their publicist, in accordance with WGA strike rules.
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