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‘The Other Black Girl’ Season Review: The Same Caricature

2 Stars

Sinclair Daniel as Nella and Brittany Adebumola as Malaika in "The Other Black Girl" on Hulu.
Sinclair Daniel as Nella and Brittany Adebumola as Malaika in "The Other Black Girl" on Hulu. By Courtesy of Wilford Harwood/Hulu
By Taylor S. Johnson, Crimson Staff Writer

“The Other Black Girl” follows Black journalist Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel), who uncovers something sinister about her publishing firm, Wagner Books. With the help of her best friend Malaika (Brittany Adebumola) and boyfriend Owen (Hunter Parrish), Nella navigates the changes in her workplace dynamic after the hiring of a new Black girl, Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray), uncovers new problems.

Though touting an eye-catching color palette, creative shots, and very effectively created suspense, “The Other Black Girl” is suffocatingly stereotypical. It relies heavily on the stereotype that light-skinned Black women are removed from their culture and instead depend on Brown and dark-skinned women to educate them.

From the first episode — titled “They Say I’m Different” — Nella is depicted as somewhat of a diversity hire at Wagner Books, as some of the first scenes contain her begging the one other minority hire not to quit, and dodging microaggressions from her white colleagues. When Hazel is introduced, she alleviates some of Nella’s distress. Nella is initially excited about finally having a Black coworker, but the show immediately veers into stereotypical territory as it sets Hazel up to be Nella’s teacher. Hazel grew up in Harlem and attended Howard University. Now her main purpose in the show is to connect Nella back to Black culture.

Malaika, Nella’s best friend, is another brown-skinned woman who fits the mentor role; she has always been surrounded by Black women and culture, and wants Nella to have more access to that. When Nella tells Malaika that Wagner Books hired another Black girl in the first episode, Malaika says that she “lit so many intention candles for this.” Lastly, Nella’s boyfriend Owen is also introduced in the first episode, and he assumes the role of the kind, conscious white man who does his best to protect Black women; though not intentional, Owen’s character is inherently reminiscent of the white savior archetype.

Objectively, there is nothing wrong with these characters or the way they are developed. The problem is that they have already been created.

Black women and femmes are a diverse group of people, with diverse backgrounds and stories. There is no reason that every time they appear on TV, they should be light-skinned and portraying a Black girl who wants to be more involved in her culture. Yes, there are women who identify or have identified with this experience, and their stories are valid and deserve to be shared. But the continuous production of media in this tradition like “Dear White People,” “Mixed-ish,” “The Hate U Give,” and “The Other Black Girl” suggests this is the only story to exist.

Moreover, the overproduction of this story is extremely colorist. It is rare that Black women assume the role of a main character, and when they do it is usually a light-skinned Black woman who is given the role. ‘The Other Black Girl’ is problematic because it stereotypes the experiences of light-skinned Black women, while also managing to feed into the idea that dark and brown-skinned Black actresses are only employed to fill in supporting roles.

In terms of the soundtrack, the show also falls apart. When Hazel is introduced in the first episode, a hooting leitmotif is played, which seems to rely on the stereotypes of African music. Ambient calls and the sound of drums are frequently featured in moments of foreshadowing or suspense, but not at any other time. In this way, the show — intentionally or not — creates a connection between this appropriation of African music and feelings of fear and unease.

There are elements in the show that are admirable; the color palette, lighting, and camera angles work together to create fantastic suspense and foreshadowing. Examples of this include the opening scene in “They Say I’m Different” picturing the unsettling backstory of Kendra Rae Philips (Cassi Maddox), scenes in the first and fourth episodes when Nella gets notes from a stalker, and a scene in the seventh episode which follows Nella and Malaika as they attend Hazel’s creepy “hair party.” These scenes use a lot of low, eerily yellow lighting and camera shots that emphasize the expressions on the actors’ faces. The unsettling acting definitely adds to the suspense; in particular, Ashleigh Murray is very talented at giving viewers the impression that something is not quite right with her. Her performance in the seventh episode — punctuated by vacant eyes and a fake smile — echoes that of Lakeith Stanfield’s in the film “Get Out.”

But once again, the plot and character development are uncommendable, as they often emphasize the stereotypes. A notable example of this is at the end of the show, when Nella realizes what she must do to make things right, and finally has an air of confidence. At this point, she discontinues the season-long streak of wearing her natural hair in an afro, and instead, wears a straight wig. Nella having straight hair at the show’s resolution is extremely distasteful. If Nella was constantly exploring different styles, or even if she styled her hair in a way that does not appeal to eurocentric beauty standards, it would be completely different. But the change occurred so suddenly, and with such proximity to Nella’s only aspect of character development, that it alludes to the idea that Black women must straighten their hair for special occasions, or in order to feel confident in themselves.

Looking more broadly and in lieu of stereotypes, the characters and plot are still not impressing. Throughout the remainder of the show, Nella and the characters learn surface level information about each other and the situations at hand, but learn nothing about themselves. There is no discussion of how their situations have impacted them, and no suggestion of how viewers are supposed to relate personally. A cause of this is that the show lacks a central theme or moral, which then makes the story one dimensional and almost pointless.

In itself, ‘The Other Black Girl’ is an adequate show. It is visually appealing, and features a lot of Black producers, writers, directors, and actors. But this does not excuse the fact that ‘The Other Black Girl’ is a harmful, rather played out piece of media. It’s 2023 and ignorance is no longer an excuse for why we cannot find other stories to tell. Subliminal stereotyping cannot be applauded.

— Staff writer Taylor S. Johnson can be reached at taylor.johnson@thecrimson.com.

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