'Brown Girls' is bold, beautiful and breathtakingly brave
The camera pans to the top of a chalk board: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," it reads. Leila glances up at the words as she answers her phone. She rolls out of bed, leaving her on-again/off-again girlfriend behind. Her hair and her bedroom are disheveled -- possibly a metaphor for her life -- but, she scrambles to sound remotely put together as she speaks to her "aunty" -- a woman who is mother-like (but doesn't have to have defined familial ties) -- who stereotypically tries to feed you and regulate your love life. Leila adjusts her voice to properly address Aunty, responding: "Assalamu alaikum," an Arabic phrase that is commonly used as a greeting among Muslims, which translates to "Peace be with you."
This is the opening scene of "Brown Girls," which instantly feels layered and fresh.
The Open TV scripted seven-episode web series, which was released in early February, chronicles the adventures of Leila (Nabila Hossain) and Patricia (Sonia Denis), two women of color just trying to navigate early adulthood. Leila is a writer, making due as a secretary (she uses the term "secretary" on screen) for an older married man -- whom she also occasionally sleeps with. Patricia is a sex-positive musician attempting to balance her career, relationships and money woes.
Created by Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey, "Brown Girls" highlights the power of intercultural relationships. Based loosely on Asghar's friendship with Jamila Woods (who manages music on "Brown Girls"), Leila and Patricia come from different cultural backgrounds. Leila is a South Asian Muslim woman who self-identifies as queer, while Patricia is a black woman who, at least in the first few episodes, is straight.
"These are everyday [scenarios] for us," Asghar said in a phone interview.
Written by Asghar and directed by Bailey, the pair was able to execute the series with a grant from the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund and crowd-sourced donations.
"I had never seen a story that really reflected my upbringing and my relationships," Bailey noted. "This [series] does."
"Brown Girls" has been compared to Lena Dunham's "Girls," as a literal brown version of the HBO show. While the title might feel like a shot across the bow at Dunham's show, "Brown Girls" represents a continuing trend of people of color, especially women, getting increasing opportunities to tell their stories in an unfiltered manner.
The show is in the vein of Issa Rae's HBO series "Insecure" (Rae also created and produced the web series "The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl") -- in that it openly discusses the challenges of maturation in a way that is relatable to women of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people of color. It is part of a recent crop of content that is produced by creators of diverse backgrounds, reflecting a broader view of the world than is typically shown in mainstream media. Shows such as "Atlanta," "Master of None" and "The Mindy Project" are also a part of this movement.
"It's just now that creators of color, queer creators, and women creators are allowed to tell their own stories," Bailey said. "For me the story of a black and a brown girl who are best friends, that's not special to me. That's just my life."
This diversity in the series highlights the importance of representation. Leila and Patricia are complex and multifaceted characters, and that is seen in how their identities intersect, and what that means for their characters. Seeing relatable women and LGBTQ people of color on screen is something Bailey and Asghar see as essential storytelling.
"There's so much love and care given to these characters on the page and on the screen," Bailey said. "It highlights their humanity and makes them [engaging]. We are all part of the human condition. We all still love. We all still bleed. We all still are messy and make horrible choices."
Operating as another "character" within the show is the city of Chicago. Leila and Patricia's apartment is in Pilsen, a neighborhood with a strong Latinx and artist presence, located in the Lower West Side of the city. The two best friends and roommates are surrounded by sights and sounds that are universally urban but distinctly Chi-Town.
"Chicago is many things, and it was important to show that all of these communities of color have their overlaps in [the city]," Asghar said. "That's not often shown about [Chicago], but I think it's really true."
Asghar and Bailey have created a series that takes a deeper look at what it means to be young, brown and black women today. It pushes the boundaries of what stories can be told and how they can be accessed.