Brown Girls was special. Before the OpenTV web series premiered in February, the trailer had amassed thousands of views online and attracted attention from celebrities like Willow Smith, as well as media outlets including Vice and NBC. The show later hosted premieres across the globe in cities including Los Angeles, New York, London, and Chicago, where the show takes place. The night of its premiere, Brown Girls became the second most popular trending topic on Twitter, a testament to the strength and beauty of its story.
With its lovably messy characters and relatable yet specific coming-of-age storylines, Brown Girls helped normalize and increase the visibility of women of color, especially queer women of color.
Brown Girls writer Fatimah Asghar and director Samantha Bailey have secured a development deal with HBO to bring an untitled series based on Brown Girls to television screens. The show will be produced by 3Arts and MXN Entertainment. Here, Asghar and Bailey share how the production of the web series was a grassroots effort, their shock over the series' popularity, and why it's important to bring shows featuring women of color and queer people to the air.
Fatimah Asghar: So much of this was grassroots. All of this was done through Facebook. We would say something on social media like, "We're thinking about this," and people inside and outside of our community would respond. Before we started filming, an artist created a mockup of [the lead characters from] Brown Girls and we put it on social media. People shared it a lot and got really attached to it
Samantha Bailey: We were [making the show] on such a low, low, low indie budget. But a lot of people were down to help out and take rates that were lower than their normal rates to work on this. I thought that was great and a testament to the project itself.
We had people reaching out saying, "I'll do anything on set. I just want to be a part of this." At one point, I said, "We don't have that many roles to fill. But if you want to come out, please come out and support." Everyone kept going. Everyone was really dedicated to getting the project done.
Because It Was Specific But Relatable, 'Brown Girls' Resonated With a Big Audience
Asghar: When the trailer came out people hadn't seen the whole series. They didn't know what it was. What if they hated it? We had no money. We had nothing. This was my first time [writing a web series] and I did not think it would be anything. I hoped my friends would watch it and I hoped they liked it.
Bailey: I thought people in Chicago would be down for it as well as our friend group and our circle. But when other people started sharing it a lot and talking about it, I was excited because we had a bigger audience than I initially assumed.
Asghar: [The trailer] went pretty viral in the first few days. It's a story that folks hadn't seen before, but is relatable. I can't tell you the amount of times people have said, "This is me and my best friend," or, "This feels like my friend group," or, "I can see myself in this." Part of it is the lack of representation of many different races in Hollywood in general. And also part of it is the way these girls operate in the web series in terms of their races, their identities, their personalities, and their class background. I think people saw their struggles in a trailer full of black and brown women and wanted to see what the project was without really knowing much about it.
What's next for "Brown Girls"
Asghar: When we talked about the show to HBO, we told them that we wanted to show how they were resourcefully fly. The folks in the show were not and did not have the sort of disposable income where they could go out to eat all the time or buy new clothes or not have money be a pressing concern weighing on their lives. Their entire community on the show is how I think of Chicago. It's a city that is very mercurial, resourceful, and sly in a way that I love. I want to carry some of that over to television. We don't want a show that is flashy and smooth. We want a show that is gritty. That has this kind of realness to it.
'I hope that it can continue to happen to the point where we have such an abundance of different races on screen and people don't feel like one show has to represent everything.' —Asghar
Bailey: Music was also part of our pitch. Chicago has an amazing music scene and we were lucky to include a bunch of artists in our series. All but one were Chicago-based and all of them were women of color. That's another way to change the gaze and the lens in how the series is seen. How does the music and the way it feels and the vibe of that city come from a woman's voice? We were lucky [HBO] was down for that.
Patricia just wants a "no-strings booty call situation."
Asghar: The web series is a small, small slice into the potential of the show. I want [the TV show] to be very Chicago-focused and queer folks of color–focused. And to have women of color and queer people of color be the protagonists and the antagonists in their own story. That's very important to me. I want to grow the show and make it more complicated and more nuanced. Tonally, we're trying to carry over the balance between comedy and those serious, weighted moments. The people of Brown Girls are not caricatures.
'The more these stories exist and the more we get to see them, the more we'll be humanized.' —Samantha Bailey
Why Representation on TV Is So Important
Bailey: The web series world felt like a safe space where I could experiment and explore all the complexities of being a human. Black and brown people and queer folks don't get that opportunity or rarely get that opportunity in TV. It's been a really great space for me. But I do think that TV allows you to reach a larger audience. Representation is real and I think the more these shows get greenlit, the more creators get to show these different aspects of people. We're so used to being pigeonholed and having these one-dimensional characters. The more these stories exist and the more we get to see them, the more we'll be humanized.
Patricia has some strict rules when it comes to men staying over.
Asghar: Representation is so complicated. I don't want us to be one single voice on these issues. Its hard to be one of the only folks of color or queer folks of color because there are so many stories. It's so important to get those stories out there to show a wide myriad of experience.
I don't think we could be possible without Issa Rae. Without Issa, and all the things she did to knock doors open, people would not have looked at us or taken us seriously. She kind of paved the way for us and we can do that for other folks. I hope we can do that for other girls. I hope that it can continue to happen to the point where we have such an abundance of different races on screen and people don't feel like one show has to represent everything—it can represent a specific story of a specific individual.