Since Disney created the Onyx Collective, which develops shows from a diverse set of voices, the shows its produced haven’t just had unexpected points of view, but they’ve almost universally been very entertaining shows to watch. The newest entry is a comedic thriller based on a book about racism in the publishing industry.
Opening Shot: “NEW YORK CITY 1988.” A woman gingerly walks out a door at Wagner Books. Scary music plays.
The Gist: That woman, Kendra Rae Phillips (Cassi Maddox), was one of Wagner’s top editors back then, but something with her seems wrong. She gets on a dingy subway and she sees lights flicker, passengers staring at her and other things that would make anyone seem paranoid.
Cut to the present day. Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniels) is on the subway on her way to her job at Wagner; she marks up a manuscript with lots of red pen and writes “Problematic” on the page. At first it looks like she’s a top editor like Kendra Rae was; she looks at the wall full of white, male faces, including founder Richard Wagner (Eric McCormack), and Kendra Rae is the only Black, female face.
Nella is actually the assistant for Vera Panini (Bellamy Young), a legendary editor at the imprint. Vera thinks she does a great job and trusts her opinion on the imprint’s top writers. Nella is indeed the only Black person there, which wears on her at times, but it’s something she’s used to, as that’s the way she grew up in Connecticut.
She’s seeing strange things in the office, like her monitor somehow showing a shot of her at her desk then giving away to a blurry, ghostly image. Then she notices someone following her in the lobby. But when she finds out that Maisy (Alyshia Ochse), one of the other editors, has hired a Black assistant, she’s overjoyed. Nella and Hazel-Mae McCall (Ashleigh Murray) hit it off immediately, and Nella is relieved to have someone at the office that looks like her and shares some life experiences.
Vera lets Nella know that she’s going to recommend her for an assistant editor position, then asks for her opinion on the new book from the imprint’s biggest author, Colin Franklin (Brian Baumgartner). Nella tells her, among other things, that the Black character hits on too many stereotypes, and is definitely going to alienate Black readers. Vera tells Nella to not say a word of that to anyone, especially Franklin when they have the launch party for the book. He’s too valuable to the company to piss off.
Feeling comfortable around Hazel despite the fact that she’s new, Nella tells her about her dilemma: Stay true to her values and let Franklin know about his problematic character or keep quiet. Hazel encourages her to speak her truth. During the launch party, Nella follows Hazel’s advice, which ticks off Franklin as well as Vera. When Franklin turns to Hazel and asks her opinion of his book, though, Hazel tells him that she liked everything about it. Of course, this completely blindsides Nella, and as she’s standing there in shock, both Franklin and Richard Wagner take notice of Hazel and tell her she should take a run at the manuscript.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Other Black Girl has the same foreboding vibe as a show like Swarm, though there is hopefully less murder involved here.
Our Take: Created by Zakiya Dalila Harris and Rashida Jones, based on Harris’ book of the same name, The Other Black Girl doesn’t lean on institutional racism for the crux of its story. Oh, it’s there; it’ll always be there. But there are only a few instances where Nella faces people being performative allies or being on the other end of constant microaggressions from white people. What drives the story is that there’s something strange going on when it comes to Wagner Books and the Black women who have worked for them, and it seems that Nella is going to try to get to the bottom of it.
The key to that is the story of Kendra Rae Phillips. Just what the hell happened to her 35 years ago? How did she come to see all of these crazy things happening around her, and why did she seem to be the one and only Black editor the company has ever had? We’ll find out more about that through Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais) an author both Nella and Hazel admire, who was friends with Kendra back in the day.
What we’re looking forward to seeing is how Nella recovers from being submarined by Hazel, whom she thought she’d be able to lean on, and just what Hazel’s ambitions really are. What we also hope is that the show’s tone, where the racism Nella and Hazel deal with in the office is subtle but prevalent, continues, and we don’t go into some of the more overt examples of racism that, while often funny and appallingly true-to-life, seem to dominate other shows where that is a driver of the story.
Sex and Skin: Nothing in the first episode.
Parting Shot: As the lights flicker in her office, Nella sees the image of Kendra in the elevator door. The ghostly image of Kendra jumps at Nella, then disappears.
Sleeper Star: We want to see more of both Brittany Adebumola, who plays Nella’s friend Malaika, and Hunter Parrish, who plays Nella’s boyfriend Owen. That will round out Nella’s character a bit more.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Please, call me Richard; my children call me Mr. Wagner. I’m kidding; I don’t have children,” Richard says as he greets Hazel for the first time. Typical smarmy boss stuff.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Other Black Girl definitely takes a different approach to demonstrating systemic racism, and combined with the fine performances from Daniel, Murray, Young and others, makes for a show that definitely kept us engaged.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.