Students, faculty members and fans of actress and writer Issa Rae flooded Wallis Annenberg Hall Monday night to see her speak for the USC Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Forum series.
Rae, known for her role in the HBO comedy-drama Insecure, spoke about her start in the film industry, which began during her undergraduate years at Stanford University. There, she wrote and directed several plays, but her film career specifically started in the digital realm. She created the pilot of the mockumentary series, Dorm Diaries for a class project, which highlighted what it means to be a black student at Stanford.
“Being black, being in these experiences where you are constantly going back and forth and code-switching between environments, it becomes second nature for a writer to want to tap into their own stories,” Rae said. “I’m no expert on all stories of black people, but all I can do is represent myself and my truth.”
Rae also produced and starred in critically acclaimed comedy web-series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl in 2011, which received recognition from publications like The New York Times and television production company Shondaland.
After it ended, Rae said HBO reached out to her for a television series, to which Rae pitched in the concept that later developed into the premise of Insecure.
For Rae, one of her main priorities as a producer is fixing the disconnect that lies between the reality of demographics and the representation of these demographics on screen. Through Insecure, Rae made an effort to portray black people and South Central Los Angeles realistically.
“I didn’t see any black people on TV I knew personally since the ’90s,” Rae said. “I couldn’t identify with them, and that was important to me. I didn’t want caricatures or stereotypes. I wanted to see characters people could connect with.
When Director of the Institute of Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg Taj Frazier, who moderated the event, referred to Rae as a “face of the new wave of multiculturalism” and asked her about resolving the lack of diversity in the film industry, Rae said that doing so has always been a mission of hers, even though she has yet to discover how to use her platform for that benefit.
However, Rae believes that working with the people around her regardless of race and background ultimately helped her achieve her success.
“Much of the industry is working with who you’re comfortable with,” Rae said. “[But] it is so important to consider the people right next to you. They can be strong in the areas you are weak, and that can make all the difference.”
Ellice Ellis, a sophomore majoring in journalism who attended the event, said she admired Rae for her honesty when it came to her responses to the diversity gap in the film industry.
“She is in such a weird place right now, since she is famous but some of her influence could be a lot smaller than we think,” Ellis said. “These kinds of actors were all just like, ‘Hey, I looked at the people around me and worked with them, and that’s what brought me to where I am now.’”
Following Rae’s talk with Frazier, the conversation opened up to questions from the audience, including some about her college experiences and others about racial representation on screen.
Monica Scott, a junior majoring in architecture, who said she has followed Rae ever since the inception of Dorm Diaries, said she found it comforting that she and Rae share a lot of the same progressive views and opinions as black women.
“I feel like she is doing something where our interests aren’t necessarily aligned,” she said. “I’m doing architecture, and she’s in the visual arts — but they are very similar in that she is a black millennial woman that is out there doing her own thing,