Late morning sunlight streams into a bedroom littered with photos, plants, and a bong while a phone rings insistently. Twenty-something Leila rolls out of bed. “Salaam alaikum, Auntie,” she squeaks, before her aunt overwhelms her with a wave of questions about her sex life and plans to visit the mosque. Squeezing her way out of the conversation, Leila breaks up with her girlfriend Miranda moments later while she awkwardly brushes her teeth, then jumps on a bus to meet her best friend Patricia. Over beers, they bemoan romantic love and pledge to remain single forever.
In Brown Girls, a new web series written by Fatimah Asghar and directed by Samantha Bailey, the friendship between Leila and Patricia is the compassionate and often humorous refuge from which they explore questions about commitment, career, and family. For Leila (Nabila Hossain), those questions hinge on her queer, Muslim, South Asian identity; for Patricia (Sonia Denis), they define the black woman she wants to be, especially in relation to her mother and the men she is drawn to.
Asghar, 27, began working on the script in 2015 to create a world that was absent from her childhood and adolescence. “I felt like I had never seen a TV show or movie that accurately represented my friendships or communities,” she says. “I wanted to create a series that I felt was honest, that presented characters of color as full people, that allowed them to make mistakes and laugh and love each other.”
A poet by trade, screenwriting gave Asghar a new set of tools to develop detailed narratives with a broad scope. At the urging of her best friend, musician Jamila Woods—who inspired Patricia’s character and serves as the show’s music consultant—Asghar organized a stage reading in February 2016 in Chicago, where she was living at the time. In addition to friends from the local theater scene, she invited Samantha Bailey and Aymar Jean Christian, the founder of Open TV. “The whole time I was like, do they like it? Do they not?” laughs Asghar. As it turned out, she didn’t need to worry. Christian immediately offered to host the series on Open TV and Bailey asked to direct it. “Sam came up to me and said,‘I want to direct this. Do you have a director? Do you have a producer? Because I want it.’” Within six months, they had finished shooting and were ready for postproduction.
Bailey shares that Patricia’s character was a particularly important draw for her. Refusing to believe she would ever want a relationship, Patricia tells a date to leave her apartment via Uber right after they have sex, then later torpedoes his evening when he inadvertently brings another woman to the bar where she works. The ensuing drama is hilarious, but it also leaves her unemployed and emotionally lost. “I wanted to show that vulnerability that you rarely see brown and black women have,” says Bailey, 28. “Especially black women. They never get to be vulnerable or messy.”
Bailey adds that while Brown Girls has garnered comparisons with Broad City and Girls, its focus on Leila, Patricia, and their constellation of relationships reflects a lineage that lies elsewhere. “I don’t think that’s where we fall into stuff. We fall in with Awkward Black Girl, with Insecure and Atlanta. These are young people of color who are fully involved in telling their version of their story.” That makes distant relatives out of Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, even though Brown Girls features a South Asian American lead, a rarity in television. Kaling and Ansari portray characters in heterosexual relationships with white partners. Moreover, they inhabit predominantly white realities.
Brown Girls disrupts these patterns of white adjacency and heterosexuality with thoughtful dynamism. Its cast is composed entirely of people of color, and it portrays a Chicago devoid of white characters, even when the camera floats through the city’s spacious parks and broad, tree-lined avenues. “White is somehow always the default of the world,” Asghar says. “What I was trying to do is be like, wait a minute, the majority of my friendships are with people of color, with queer people of color. That’s where a lot of my communities have been built, and this is what a lot of my world feels like. And I don’t ever get to see that.”
For Leila, the struggle of embracing her queer identity forms the bulk of her story. As a woman in a family at the intersection of Islam and South Asian culture, she occupies an uncomfortable position by deviating from traditional expectations around marriage and the expression of her sexuality. Asghar points out, “[I wanted] to create a space that moves away from the narrative of the good South Asian Muslim girl. That narrative can be super damaging, and can make people who differ from it in the slightest way feel like their existence is wrong.”
By illuminating challenges particular to South Asian American women, Asghar highlights the deep wells of love and acceptance that exist in ostensibly conservative families. When Leila works up the courage to come out to her sister Mussarat (Minita Gandhi), her eyes widen when the response is laughter. “I’m proud of you!” Mussarat exclaims, before she grows serious. “All that hiding is going to kill you.” Leila begins to cry. “I know,” she responds, and collapses into her sister’s arms.
In conversations like these, Brown Girls uses speech as a prism through which visibility and acceptance are refracted. Crucially, it identifies—and sometimes elides—the boundaries between self-love and one’s place among friends and family. When Leila speaks to her aunt, her voice bears the telltale accent that South Asian Americans reserve for conversations with immigrant relatives and family friends. It reemerges when she tries to convince Mussarat that she knows how to make dhal and roti, then vanishes in the company of Patricia and their friend Victor, who watch in horror as she clocks her ex’s new girlfriend in the face. This code-switching allows Leila to frame and reframe her identity as she moves between relationships and communities. Sometimes subtle and often awkward, this reframing allows both her and Patricia to achieve a deeper knowledge of themselves and their communities.
In Brown Girls, these communities are inextricably entwined with Chicago. Setting aside tropes that portray the city as a victim of gun violence and segregation, the series lavishes attention on the Dojo, a DIY space run by queer people of color, and the streets of Pilsen, a much-loved Latinx neighborhood that has increasingly become a battleground between locals and gentrifiers. Chicago is pierced with apertures where black, brown, and queer communities meet, sustain, and affirm each other’s visibility, and the creative energy that these spaces produce is central to Brown Girls. “That’s where I see that segregation stop,” says Asghar. “That’s when I see people from all these different backgrounds coming together, hanging out, and making art together.” The show, adds Bailey, offers chance to shed some light on these constructed kinships. “There’s a whole bubbling artistic community and interracial and intersectional community in Chicago that gets no love.”
Even as it brings these communities together, Brown Girls is careful not to compress the narratives of black and brown people into a single history. “There are complications that arise from different people of color living with each other,” Asghar acknowledges, “There are questions of solidarity. But we can’t have those conversations if we don’t see those worlds.” Those worlds are, first and foremost, a haven for black and brown people alike. “I wanted, in an America that has always been politically turbulent for people and communities of color, to carve out these little spaces of joy. The more we get shows and poems and novels and books and about people of color, the more people will feel seen and feel like they’re not alone.”
Brown Girls screens worldwide today.
Lakshmi Ramgopal is a writer, musician, and professor. Twitter: @lykanthea