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Thursday August 18th

Column: "Abbott Elementary" proves it's long past time to invest in Black creators

Tyler James Williams stars as new teacher Greg Eddie in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Photo courtesy of Prashant Gupta/ABC/TNS.
Buy Photos Tyler James Williams stars as new teacher Greg Eddie in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Photo courtesy of Prashant Gupta/ABC/TNS.

Although only three episodes in, "Abbott Elementary" has become my new favorite show. 

The "mockumentary" style sitcom follows the workday of teachers at a public school in Philadelphia — letting viewers in on the persistent chaos they create and face on a daily. 

The show also marks another stage in the career of Quinta Brunson — the creator, writer and star in the series. Her ascension from viral sensation to renaissance woman of network television exemplifies what happens when Black talent is invested in. 

Brunson has spent the past decade in various parts of the entertainment industry. In a 2016 interview with Cosmopolitan, she spoke about her decision to leave college and move to Los Angeles to pursue comedy. Her first dance with fame came in 2013 when a video she posted went viral on Tumblr and Instagram. This came at a time when short-form video content hadn't yet become a social media norm. 

Brunson took this attention in stride, creating a series called “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” that was wildly popular. This was where I myself first encountered Brunson and her iconic phrase, “Oh, he got money!” 

At the end of 2014, after working as an actress in videos at BuzzFeed and completing a residency there, Brunson became one of the youngest video content creators at the company. As a junior producer, she had the resources to create comedy content for a larger audience. 

The success of one of her series led to it being purchased by Youtube Red and her promotion to development partner. 

In the Cosmopolitan interview, Brunson expressed a desire to “play in all the platforms,” but noted that her race and gender were potential pitfalls for investment in these plans. The production of a series on this level shows that she was able to fulfill that dream just five years later. 

Brunson’s career path is nearly parallel to that of Issa Rae, who similarly spent much of her early career on the internet. Rae got her start in 2011 when the first episode of her web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” was uploaded to Youtube. Rae worked on several projects while attending Stanford University years prior, but the “Awkward Black Girl” series was the blueprint for her future endeavors. 

In 2021, a decade after the premiere of her two-season, viral web show, Rae released the fifth and final season of "Insecure" on HBO. The award-winning series came out in 2016 and on it, Rae wore many hats as co-creator, actress, writer and executive producer. 

Though the chapter on her first television series is closed, Rae’s reign is far from over. Her company, formerly called Issa Rae Productions, relaunched as Hoorae in 2020. It developed from a combination of Rae’s interests, comprised of Hoorae Media for film, digital and TV productions, a music label in partnership with Atlantic Records called Raedio and ColorCreative, its management division.

Under the banner of Hoorae, Issa Rae has landed deals with HBO to develop 3 other shows, “Him or Her,” “Sweet Life,” and “Rap Sh*t,” in addition to her existing role as the executive producer on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” 

Television has seen its fair share of black sitcoms. "Martin," "Girlfriends," "Living Single" and "It’s a Different World" are just some of the series that marked an important time for Black talent, and were based on the very normal lives of its Black characters. 

"Insecure" and "Abbott Elementary" do the same, telling stories from both women’s backgrounds. Quinta’s mother, a now retired teacher, was the inspiration for her comedy. Similarly, Issa Rae’s dramedy draws from her real-life relationships with friends. 

On the most basic level, their storytelling offers representation in the most quotidian and intimate way — and it’s clear that audiences have a hunger for it. 

On another, it enables opportunities for more representation in writing rooms and executive producer roles. With their success comes more opportunities for minority creators to find success — without having to wait around for the chance to play it big in an industry where they have to work twice as hard. 

Not everyone is given the Lena Dunham treatment — courted by networks and green-lit from ill-prepared pitches. 

But what was crucial to both Issa Rae and Quinta Brunson’s development as creators to watch in the industry was the investment in their talent. Both had unconventional starts to their career, but their dedication to their craft paid off when they were given the resources to show the world what they can do. They took the different jobs and opportunities they earned to learn more about the industry and carve out space not only for themselves but for others. 

The tradeoff for investment in these two Black women are not only high ratings for the networks and sharing their brilliance with the world, but the representation on and behind the screen that Hollywood so desperately needs. 

@_zarialyssa

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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