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‘The Other Black Girl’ examines horror of being Black in a White workplace

Sinclair Daniel as Nella, left, and Ashleigh Murray as Hazel in Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl.”  (Courtesy of Hulu)
By Bethonie Butler Washington Post

Before “The Other Black Girl” had even hit bookshelves in 2021, Hulu had already snapped up the rights to bring Zakiya Dalila Harris’s fictional thriller to the small screen. Praised as a timely reckoning of the largely white publishing industry, “The Other Black Girl” was touted as an heir to “The Devil Wears Prada” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Two years later, Hulu’s adaptation has arrived, keeping the spirit of Harris’s debut novel – and the well-deserved buzz around it – firmly intact.

The show introduces Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel), an ambitious editorial assistant at the fictional Wagner Books, where she is the only Black staffer. We quickly learn that the publishing house has only ever had one Black editor in its decades-long history. Taking in the drab executive portraits that line Wagner’s lobby, Nella’s eyes inevitably drift to the only Black face on the wall: Kendra Rae Phillips.

Kendra Rae looms large as the editor who championed and nurtured Nella’s favorite book, “Burning Heart.” Paradoxically, the groundbreaking 1983 novel – by Kendra Rae’s childhood friend Diana Gordon – helped put Wagner and its eponymous founder/editor in chief, Richard (Eric McCormack of “Will & Grace” fame), on the map. But four decades later, that legacy is wearing thin. So Nella is almost too excited when Hazel-May McCall (“Riverdale’s” Ashleigh Murray) appears one day in the cubicle adjacent to hers.

As Nella tries to discern whether she can trust Hazel, she starts feeling as if she’s being followed and receives notes advising her to “LEAVE WAGNER NOW.” Hazel seems oddly cozy with Richard, and seems to effortlessly get along with Wagner’s editors, including Nella’s boss, Vera (“Scandal’s” Bellamy Young).

With help from her boyfriend, Owen (“Weeds” alum Hunter Parrish), and BFF, Malaika (Brittany Adebumola), Nella keeps careful – even paranoid – tabs on Hazel, investigating what she fears could be a dangerous corporate conspiracy. Though the series veers into vaguely supernatural territory, the challenging tête-à-tête at the center of “The Other Black Girl” is very real. Nella is relieved to see another Black face at Wagner, but she’s also wary of sabotage. As the saying goes, “All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” a variation of a quote attributed to Zora Neale Hurston.

Like Peele’s feature debut, “The Other Black Girl” punctuates its thrills with social commentary – casting racism as the story’s Big Bad. The hairs on your neck might stand up after seeing Nella run confused through Wagner’s dimly lit office after hours, hearing menacing voices, but any sighting of Nella’s try-hard colleague Sophie (Kate Owens) sets off a similar, if slightly less urgent, level of alarm. If you know, you know the type: shows up at your desk to discuss anything vaguely Black – hip-hop, Beyoncé visuals, the latest Telfar drop; uses words and phrases she probably shouldn’t; and offers only the most performative displays of allyship for her BIPOC (and it’s always BIPOC) colleagues.

The plot can get a bit unwieldy throughout the course of its 10 episodes, and there are some tone issues (forgivable for a series that straddles drama, comedy and thriller), but the show is as timely as its source material in the wake of a so-called racial reckoning that, among other discourse, brought to light the inequities that Black and other employees of color face at predominantly white companies.

“The Other Black Girl” might sound triggering for those who know the experience of being Black in a predominantly white office or industry. But the show is clever in its sendup of those homogenous environments and never feels like an outsider’s guide to tokenism. In one early scene, a white editor breezily notes that “Hazel mentors underprivileged students up in Harlem.” “We use the term opportunity-challenged,” Hazel says without missing a beat. “Our job is to embolden them beyond their circumstances.” It’s not inconsequential that there are Black women at the helm of the series: Harris, who adapted her own novel for television; executive producer Rashida Jones, who co-wrote the first episode with the author, and Jordan Reddout, who served as showrunner alongside her longtime writing partner, Gus Hickey.

The realities of being Black at work haven’t been widely explored on television. Notable exceptions include Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” in which Rae’s protagonist struggles through her aimless underemployment at a nonprofit geared toward Black and Latino youth. “The Other Black Girl” is about publishing, but Hollywood doesn’t go unchecked in a story that centers Black women and offers multiple Black actresses dynamic lead roles. When Garcelle Beauvais (known for memorable turns on “NYPD Blue” and “The Jamie Foxx Show”) shows up as Diana Gordon, you get the sense that she has more to do here than in most of the other unscripted roles she’s held since breaking out in the late 1980s.

“The Other Black Girl” reflects a workplace culture that quietly tolerates discrimination. The show comes as some corporations that stumbled over themselves to hop on the diversity-and-inclusion train have quietly let go of the executives they hired to hold them accountable. Black women still work in environments where they are told to be confident (but not too confident) and that consistently undervalue their talent, expertise and financial worth. “The Other Black Girl” zeroes in on the absurdity of it all, but also the complexities.

“The Other Black Girl” (10 episodes) premiered Wednesday on Hulu.