“This is what it must mean to be a white person, to see so many different depictions of yourself in media in very different ways”
The most memorable scenes from Brown Girls, a web series by Chicago poet and screenwriter Fatima Asghar and filmmaker Sam Bailey, are the ones shot close-up. They frequently capture the lead characters, Leila and Patricia, in the same frame, touching each other, embracing, or communicating in small quarters. In one shot, Leila is touching both sides of Patricia’s head, delicately plucking hairs from Patricia’s eyebrows with tweezers. “You’re the one who won’t let your eyebrows stand in their truth,” says Leila, after Patricia complains about the pain. It’s a tender scene that exemplifies the comfortable sweetness of their relationship, which is central to the show’s plot. Leila, a queer South Asian writer, and Patricia, a black musician, are constantly struggling to renegotiate their place in the world, but the tether between them remains reliably taut.
“They're always cosigning each other's bullshit,” says Bailey, who directed the series. “They don't have to be convinced to be their biggest cheerleader. They're just always there … They're normally sharing the screen and I really wanted that to show how they're always making space for the other one.” The seven-episode series—filmed over the course of nine days—has been out for fewer than two months and it’s already generated an impressive amount of attention from the press since first premiering on OpenTV in February. TIME wrote that the show “offers a voice to queer women of color”; W magazine profiled the two artists and predicted that the show “could be the next Insecure;” and The Ringer called Brown Girls “the future of television.”
A tender moment between Leila and Patricia in the pilot episode of Brown Girls.
Asghar wrote the script in 2015, and Bailey signed onto the project after a successful table read last year. “It was two pages in, I was like, ‘I have to direct this,’” says Bailey, who is also the Digital Art Director of VAM, a Chicago-based creative studio. The pair applied for grants to fund the series—eventually winning one from the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund—and crowdfunded the rest of the $20,000 budget. Asghar says that this model gave them creative freedom to make the show exactly as they originally intended. “I think that oftentimes the way that people think about film is very much like, 'Oh, we're doing this thing and we're trying to get it sold,'” says Asghar. “That's how projects get held up, the need to be marketable before you even know what you're doing. We never cared about marketability. Therefore, when it took off, it was really surprising.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I wanted to show that there were other ways of friendship too, ways in which you are that person's soul mate, even if you're dating other people.[/quote]
The relationship between Leila and Patricia is based loosely on Asghar’s friendship to Chicago musician Jamila Woods, who coordinates music for the show and who Asghar affectionately refers to as “Jam”. “Neither of the characters are a one-to-one of us at all,” says Asghar. “But I wanted to convey that closeness, the texture of that intimacy and the way these girls ride for each other above all else.”
Although the series follows each woman’s struggles with love, family, and adulthood, it’s their tender womanly camaraderie that grounds the series’ narratives. “Even when there are shows that have strong female friendships, there's sometimes a selfishness in the way those are depicted,” says Asghar. “What I wanted to do was show that there were other ways of friendship too, ways in which you are that person's soul mate and primary person, even if you're dating other people.”
Creators Fatima Asghar and Sam Bailey. Photo by Alexus Mclane.
But this kind of friendship can be difficult to comprehend to those who’ve been conditioned to only understand womanly love in absolute—romantic or platonic—terms. Asghar says they’ve received feedback from viewers who were adamant that Leila and Patricia should actually be dating—it’s a question she used to have to answer frequently regarding her own relationship with Woods. “In college, people would be like, ‘Why aren't you dating?’” says Asghar. “And it's like, are ya'll so threatened by an intimate portrayal of a female friendship, especially between women of color, that you then have to instantly classify it or pigeonhole it as something else?”
As much as Brown Girls is a love letter to the relationships between black and brown women, says Bailey, it’s also a paean to the city of Chicago, which is captured richly within the frame of her camera (the bright coloring was influenced by the Bollywood films recommended to her by Asghar). Representations of Chicago have long been limited by predetermined media narratives—”It's either gangs or Chicago firefighters,” says Bailey. She, however, wanted to introduce a new story entirely. “Chicago is a very segregated city, but there are these little pockets and neighborhoods where I think desegregation happens, and I think it's in these artistic communities,” she says. The show filmed in popular DIY art spaces and deploys the music of local female artists—every aspect of it is steeped in Chicago’s art community. “Brown Girls is definitely a part of a Chicago artistic lineage that I think is really, really important,” says Asghar.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There is a lot of burden on creators of color to represent a lot of different folks all the time. It's unfair to put that burden on one single piece of art.[/quote]
It’s impossible to avoid the political context in which Brown Girls emerges, in a television landscape that has long denied space to brown or black people. Its cast reflects the heterogeneity of Chicago’s demographic population—there are no white main characters, and they rarely show up in the frame, appearing only as passersby. The very experiences of Leila and Patricia speak to political values that other white creators might have difficulty acknowledging. In one scene, they have a very frank, but casual, conversation about anti-blackness in brown communities. But the conversation ends quickly. It doesn’t become a plot point. This moment speaks to the ways in which people of color engage with the world; race discussions don’t need their own after-school special, they’re already embedded in our everyday experiences.
Other, more subtle, art decisions also nod to the community’s political alignments. In one episode, Patricia wears a big Black Lives Matter pin. “There's a Fred Hampton picture in the mirror during the party scene where Leila's stuck in the bathroom drinking,” says Bailey, for example. “We're not making that up. This is how our homes look. This is how our communities look.”
Photo by Megan Lee Miller.
It was important, for both Bailey and Asghar, to create characters that were full in their humanity and not reduced to their racial or ethnic backgrounds. “I think there is a lot of burden on creators of color—more so than on white creators—to represent a lot of different folks all the time. It's unfair to put that burden on one single piece of art. What can then end up happening is you have a tokenized diversity,” Asghar explains. “We're always put to a higher standard than everyone else. We have to do so much more to make it in the door. And then to have that added burden from our own community can sometimes feel suffocating.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]This is what it must mean to be a white person, to see so many different depictions of yourself in media in very different ways.[/quote]
As more and more depictions of black and brown communities show up on TV and in film, that burden continues to lighten. With the success of Brown Girls, there is discussion about continuing the project—whether that means producing a second season or, hopefully, a different, longer form of the show. The enthusiastic reaction to the series demonstrates a hunger and a craving for media like it, as Brown Girls joins a nascent cache of media that doesn’t center whiteness or prioritize the narratives of white characters.
“I think it was in September or October that Atlanta, Insecure, and Queen Sugar were on TV,” says Bailey. “I remember being very overwhelmed in a great way. I was like, ‘This is what it must mean to be a white person, to see so many different depictions of yourself or people that you may know that are in your community represented in media in very different ways.’”