MIPCOM: Honoree Issa Rae Talks Diverse Writers Rooms and the Female Gaze

Issa Rae-Publicity-H-2018

"We need to empower other storytellers to create other shows, other movies, other media so that the onus isn't on me," she said of being an all-black show.

If an Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations haven't helped Issa Rae become any less Insecure, taking home MIPCOM's Personality of the Year Award should certainly help. The actress was honored as the youngest recipient ever of the prize, which is usually handed to industry veterans, for her groundbreaking and visionary work on the HBO show and her web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.

Reed Midem CEO Paul Zilk rolled out the red carpet — literally, a large section of red carpet — saying that he hopes Rae will gain confidence as her star is sure to continue its meteoric rise. (She shook her head an emphatic "no"; she still hates red carpets.)

Accepting the award, she didn't disappoint the crowd, joking about the League of Nations (who held its first meeting in the Carlton ballroom in 1922) and telling stories about the inappropriateness of bringing Parmesan cheese to a party.

But she also chose to address the industry (and the slew of execs in the room) on the issue of diversity on set and in the workplace, focusing on the "excuse" of executives saying they don't have enough talent in the pipeline. “I always think, 'How sad for them. They don't know any people of color … they need to stop discrediting that friend-of-a-friend or that hungry person sitting right next to them.”

Speaking onstage earlier in the day, Rae said that her writers room is predominantly made up of black women, though they are of diverse ages and different sexualities. “We wanted to make sure the voices that were dominating this story were also reflected in the room,” she said. She said there's even one white male writer in the room. “We're like, that's what it feels like!” 

She also spoke about the high expectations for her show and criticism she's received for handling certain topics. “There is an expectation that people really want us to address every black issue and save the race,” she said. “I can only tell the stories I've experienced and try to do that the best I can, if anything we need to empower other storytellers to create other shows, other movies, other media so that the onus isn't on me.”

“I can only imagine that many white shows don't have to have that. They have the gift of having plenty, there's not one show that will be held as the standard of representation,” she said. On the audience for Insecure being 62 percent white, Rae joked: “Even white people are tired of seeing white people shows." 

The shift to niche programming has also enabled her team to be direct in their storytelling, not hampered by certain notes. There's no need to add a white character for comfort, as she had been advised to do early in her career. “We can tell our stories, address the issues in cultural moments within our communities without having to explain or break it down to make it palatable for an audience, and to be able to just express ourselves and be unapologetic in our blackness, that's what attracts people to shows right now,” she said.

Then, of course, there's the sex, and lots of it. It's meant to be frank and raw (so raw that her “good Christian” mom long refused to watch the show), challenge the stereotype of the hypersexual black woman and flip the traditional male gaze. “It is intentional in that way because we're always seeing titties and ass from women, which is fine, but there's this specific male gaze that we've always been subjected to and this is an opportunity to reverse that.”

Rae said that while the show has so far been predominantly hetero, she's not “ruling out” exploring different types of sex. “I think we are building to that.”