Arts

In ‘The Other Black Girl,’ the Call Is Coming From Inside the Cubicle

The loneliness, anxiety and discomfort that often comes with being the only Black person in a predominantly white space can turn any office into a mental and emotional minefield. But what if finally gaining a new Black co-worker only made matters worse?

“The Other Black Girl,” a satirical workplace thriller premiering Wednesday on Hulu, poses just such a quandary. The 10-episode series, developed for the streamer by Onyx Collective, is based on Zakiya Dalila Harris’s best-selling 2021 novel of the same name and follows Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel), a put-upon editorial assistant, as the rat race leads her down unexpected paths.

Nella spends her days wilting under an ever-critical white gaze, enduring performative wokeness and passive-aggressive supervisors at the literary publishing company where she works. Her joy at discovering that a newly hired assistant is also a Black woman is short-lived when that employee, Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray), quickly becomes her adversary.

There is also a parallel plot tying Nella’s present-day woes to a mysterious incident between two Black women at the same company nearly four decades earlier, as well as increasingly sinister occurrences in the office: flickering lights, threatening notes, glitchy computers depicting unnerving scenes, shadowy figures darting down the halls.

Sinclair Daniel, left, and Ashleigh Murray in “The Other Black Girl,” debuting Wednesday on Hulu.Credit…Hulu

The show prompts viewers to wonder: What’s more chilling? The uncanny notion of a supernatural office-wide conspiracy? Or the very real knowledge that you can never know whom to trust because racism, either casual or systemic, could be lurking around the next cubicle corner?

“We really wanted for it to be unclear what is the actual scary part,” Harris said in a late-August phone interview. “Obviously, there’s the twist that’s happening, but also, it’s being gaslit in your office!”

A lifelong fan of true-crime and horror, the novelist was eager to make her first foray into TV writing (she co-wrote the pilot and wrote the penultimate episode) by channeling some of her eerie faves, including “The Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror.” She and Rashida Jones — the pilot co-writer and an executive producer — also took cues from their mutual must-watch, “Severance.”

“The way that they nailed office life — the mundane parts of it, but also the quirky parts of it — that was something that excited me,” Harris said of the Apple TV+ drama. She said she prefers creepiness that “starts off in a very everyday kind of place, but then slowly, it becomes more and more clear that there’s something off.”

Harris, like her main character, hails from a mostly white Connecticut town and was the only Black woman in her department at Penguin Random House before quitting in 2019 to write full time. She said the show’s writers — most are Black women — bonded by sharing past experiences of being overstressed and undervalued as an “only.”

“Having those conversations really early on allowed us as a room to start from this place of our own relationships with the material,” Harris said. She added,“I really felt like we were trust-falling, to where I got to feel comfortable giving my baby over. At that point, I was like, ‘This is so much bigger than me now.’”

Nella is plagued by workplace microaggressions as well as flickering lights, threatening notes and other sinister occurrences in the office.Credit…Hulu

Nella’s plight will feel familiar to any viewer who’s ever been blindsided by a tone-deaf “Heyyy, gurrrl!” in the office kitchen. You can practically see her ulcer forming as she fends off her wannabe ally co-worker, Sophie (Kate Owens), while contending with the canine commands — “Nella, come! Sit!” — of her boss, Vera (Bellamy Young).

When she learns about the new hire, the perpetually uneasy Nella gets a visible serotonin boost from the chance to gab about natural hair care products and H.B.C.U. homecoming parties. But soon the effortlessly cool Hazel seems to have the higher-ups, particularly the company founder, Richard Wagner (Eric McCormack), eating out of one hand while she is holding Nella back with the other.

Amid all the mind games and crabs-in-a-barrel machinations, the show also mocks modern “diversity matters” pageantry while suggesting with its earlier subplot that for all of the rhetoric, the 21st-century office environment isn’t too terribly different from that of the 1980s.

“I felt like every Black woman I know could identify with some aspect of the book,” said Jordan Reddout, who is the series’s showrunner along with her longtime creative partner, Gus Hickey. Reddout said she “made every woman in my family read it — my dad, too.”

“I am a Black woman who was a very serious classical musician for a long time and then went to Harvard and then went into sitcom writing,” she said. “So I really identified with Nella’s journey of being ‘the only one.’”

(The phone interview with Reddout and Hickey was coordinated through their personal representation, not Hulu. The Writers Guild strike rules prohibit members from promoting shows at the behest of the studios and their subsidiaries.)

For Nella, the arrival of Hazel is first a source of relief, then concern.Credit…Hulu

From Hickey’s perspective, there’s also a “universality to the story in terms of posing this question of: How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice to succeed in a competitive environment?”

“And for marginalized people,” he continued, “it’s in a competitive environment that is set up for people who don’t look like you to win.”

The duo leaned on their sitcom background (“Mixed-ish,” “Grown-ish”) in order to inject some levity into their cultural critique. (Having written for “Will & Grace,” this is their second time working with McCormack.)

“Our style has always been: The world is sad enough as it is, you have to laugh at it or you will not survive,” Hickey said. “I think with this show, as serious a subject matter as it has, it almost necessitates having a point of view that has some humor. So we were really conscious of that with Nella; we wanted her to be a funny audience surrogate who could see how ridiculous both the reality and the fantasy of this world was.”

Reddout said they stayed true to the spirit of the novel and even pulled certain scenes directly from the page. “I think the places where we do stray from the book are only deepening the characters and rounding out their stories,” she said.

Harris supports that approach. She admitted the Nella-Hazel dynamic could have been more nuanced in her novel. For the series, she was keen to flesh out the book’s antagonist and chip away at the “good vs. bad” dichotomy between the two women.

“We really wanted for it to be unclear what is the actual scary part,” Harris said of the series.Credit…Mark Elzey for The New York Times

“It’s more rounded out in the show than it was in the book, to be honest,” she said. “With Hazel, writing her in the book, I just thought of her as more of a robot that’s been conditioned by the world to be this way but not necessarily still holding onto humanity. In the show Hazel has a soul, and Ashleigh had a huge hand in shaping what that soul would look and feel like.”

Another key difference between the series and the book is their divergent endings — without giving them away, each leaves you wondering what happens next, though for very different reasons. Neither the author nor the showrunners would speculate on the likelihood of a second season, though all three acknowledged that enough unexplored original material and potential new story lines exist to sustain one.

In the meantime, Harris is busy writing her second book, which she says is not a sequel but is “still horror, still Black people.” She believes the genre is well-suited to telling Black stories, so much so that she used a quote from the author and horror noir expert Tananarive Due as the epigraph for “The Other Black Girl”: “Black history is Black horror.” But her attraction to the otherworldly runs deeper than just that.

“I joke that I’ve always been drawn to horror because I’ve always been the kind of person who imagines all the ways things can go wrong,” she said. “For me, watching and writing horror is the perfect place to put my own personal anxieties and insecurities.”

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