‘Black’ Like Each Other

Early in Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl,” Nella (Sinclair Daniel), an editorial assistant at the august and very white publishing company Wagner Books, is delighted to meet Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), the new hire to whom the title refers. Her enthusiasm won’t last — more on that later — but she’s happy, not just at the prospect of a new friend but also at no longer being looked on in the office as the sole voice and manifestation of an entire race.

“It’s like Wagner realized we’re in 2023 and there can no longer just be one of us,” she says.

She’s talking publishing, but she could be talking TV as well. When a series is the sole depiction of a certain demographic of character in a certain setting, it can become a prisoner of representation, taken to depict “the [insert group here] experience” rather than representing simply an experience, distinct and personal.

So it’s fitting that “The Other Black Girl” isn’t alone. It’s one of two ambitious new series about young Black culture workers, in different countries and with different goals, dealing with the tension between representing one’s people and representing one’s self.

The British import “Dreaming Whilst Black,” on Showtime, follows the aspiring filmmaker Kwabena (Adjani Salmon, who cocreated the series and the web comedy it is adapted from). He has written a feature script, a romance based on his grandparents’ experience as Jamaican immigrants, but he is stuck in an office job while his film school friends get into, or at least closer to, the movie business.

Though it is about a struggling artist, “Dreaming” is not an avant-garde production but rather a deft combination of young-adult rom-com and workplace cringe comedy. Kwame’s white co-worker asks him to recommend “Black films” for a Netflix-and-chill date with a Black woman; his friend Amy (Dani Moseley) works in a production office where her white colleagues see her as “our voice of the African community.” Amy’s office dynamics, in particular, recall the foot-in-mouth workplace microaggressions in Issa Rae’s “Insecure.”

“Dreaming” leaves Kwabene’s films largely offscreen. It’s less a story about moviemaking than about movie-pitching — selling your ideas and yourself to people with preconceptions about both — and this social aspect of the film business makes for both better comedy and better commentary.

Salmon is a charismatic anchor for the series, which sends the easygoing but hapless Kwabena through a gantlet of “pitchfests,” film showcases and one-off video gigs, while building out his small circle of family and friends. If anything, “Dreaming” can be too conventional a comedy, relying on conventions like its abundant fantasy sequences.

Adjani Salmon, who stars in “Dreaming Whilst Black,” cocreated the series and the web comedy it is adapted from.Credit…Anup Bhatt/Big Deal Films, via Showtime.

But it gets weirder and more distinctive over the season’s six episodes, as Kwabena struggles to hold on to his vision in an industry that has set ideas of what “Black film” looks like. “I don’t want to be another director making hood films,” he tells a colleague, who answers, “If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to be making films.”

Like Kwabena, “Dreaming Whilst Black” takes its purpose seriously but carries it lightly. It finds multiple angles on its central question: Can you represent a people while also representing yourself individually — and without betraying either? It has no pat answers, ending its first season on an unresolved note that had me eager to see a second.

“The Other Black Girl,” based on a novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, is likewise a mash-up but of different components. It’s part literary-world dramedy, part conspiracy thriller and part horror tale. Much of its appeal comes in watching the protagonist work out exactly what kind of story she’s living in.

A centerpiece of Nella’s office is the “hall of white people,” lined with portraits of past editors, which includes a single Black face, an industry legend who shepherded a literary classic by her childhood friend to publication, then disappeared in the late 1980s.

Nella imagines taking her place on that wall, but her job involves navigating awkward co-workers (like an anxious try-hard “ally” who seems to have reread “White Fragility” a few dozen too many times) and salving the ego of a big-shot author (Brian Baumgartner) whose latest manuscript focuses on a stereotyped Black drug addict named “Shartricia.”

Nella’s excitement at meeting Hazel — hip, outgoing, someone she can bond with over college experiences — curdles when Nella raises concerns over the offensive manuscript and Hazel throws her under the bus. Maybe Hazel is reacting out of nerves. Maybe she is out to take Nella’s place. Maybe, as suggested by Hazel’s odd behavior and mysterious background, there are bigger, more sinister — even supernatural? — forces at work.

As tensions mount, Nella (Daniel, with, from left, Eric McCormack, Garcelle Beauvais and Murray) begins to wonder who, or what, the real enemy is. Credit…Hulu

“The Other Black Girl” is open about its screen influences, referencing Shonda Rhimes and Jordan Peele. But its foundation is a smart, brisk satire of the supposedly progressive office of the Black Lives Matter era, as well a subtler comedy of intraracial dynamics and frenemyship. Daniel is vibrant as Nella, who is just cynical enough to suspect everything and everyone, just idealistic enough to be vulnerable in office politics.

Hazel, meanwhile, is as much a thought-provoking mystery as she is an intriguing character. In the early episodes, she is as plausible a friend for Nella as she is an enemy. She says all the right things about sisterhood. She’s cool and savvy, quickly embraced by the white staff whom Nella has never been entirely comfortable with. You (and Nella) have to wonder, Is Hazel the real villain here? Or is it the institution that puts them in a “Highlander”-style competition in which, 2023 or not, there can only be one?

After a few episodes, “The Other Black Girl” starts working toward an answer, and a tart office dramedy morphs into — well, here is where things get both spoilery and bananas. With the help of her friend Malaika (Brittany Adebumola) and boyfriend, Owen (Hunter Parrish), Nella delves into Hazel’s secrets as well as the twisty history of the company and its founder (Eric McCormack, who doesn’t quite manage the smarmy scariness the role calls for), which reach back decades.

The mounting shockers begin to evoke Rhimes’s “Scandal,” whose Bellamy Young appears as Nella’s boss. But “The Other Black Girl” is grounded in real-world conflicts: Whether it’s possible to change institutions from within, whether success requires so much compromise that it becomes another form of failure.

I haven’t read the novel the series is based on — I’m a believer that a good adaptation needs to stand on its own, as this one mostly does — but it is worth noting that Hulu intends it to be a continuing series. Where a limited-series version of the story might have ended on a note of productive ambiguity, it’s hard to see how “Black Girl” can continue the story without leaning even harder into its corkboard-and-string elements.

As TV, “The Other Black Girl” ends up being an entertaining, sometimes jarring mix of realist satire and over-the-top thriller. It’s both the thing itself — a story about representation, compromise and the way in which members of a minority group are pitted against one another — and a fantastical, sometimes out-of-control allegory for that thing.

Maybe it’s inevitable that the down-to-earth aspects of the series are not only more successful but also scarier. Sometimes reality is all the horror story you need.

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