I’m a sucker for a TV show that takes you out of your comfort zone. I’m talking about those of the mindf**k ilk.
It probably explains why I have been drawn to offerings like “The Sinner”, “Behind Her Eyes” (still waiting for that second season, sigh!), “Nurse Ratched”, “Twin Peaks”, “Squid Game” and “Black Mirror”.
Of course, there are plenty of these offerings. But you get my drift.
This brings me to “The Other Black Girl” on Disney+. The title intrigued me and so I decided to give the 10-part suspense thriller a watch.
It was unsettling and riveting at the same time.
The show is based on Zakiya Dalila Harris’s 2021 novel of the same name. And it threw me for a loop, that’s for sure.
The series opens with Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel), a promising editorial assistant at Wagner Books, which is a successful publishing house in New York City.
Nella is talented but her career is somewhat stagnant.
As the only black person in the office, she has to contend with her overbearing editor boss Vera Parini (Bellamy Young).
Vera is power-hungry. She tries to sell herself as a woke person, sensitive to the struggles of Nella. But she is far removed from Nella’s reality of being in a world where the system is stacked against you because of your skin colour.
Then there is Maisy Glendower (Alyshia Ochse), an editor at Wagner Books who is Vera’s nemesis. The two don't miss an opportunity to take a dig at each other with Nella often acting as a buffer.
When Maisy hires Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray) as her new assistant, Nella is over the moon as she finally has someone she can relate to.
At first, the two get along like a house on fire. They bond over their love of “Burning Heart”, an empowering 1988 novel written by Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais).
Let’s just say, Diana unwittingly influenced their life path.
At face value, Hazel is feisty, confident, supportive and outspoken. She creates her own happiness and wins and introduces Nella to her go-getter ways.
Of course, Nella is beyond happy to have someone she can unpack her feelings with. And she does just that when it comes to Colin Franklin’s (Brian Baumgartner) upcoming new release.
As far as the publishing house is concerned, Colin can do no wrong. He is made to feel like a demigod by everyone, including Richard Wagner (Eric McCormack), the founder and editor-in-chief of Wagner Books.
As such, Colin is smug when it comes to his status with the publishing house. And sharing an opinion that is not aligned with his ego is a no-no.
So when Nella tells Hazel that she feels like the black character in Colin’s new book is problematic as she panders to all the stereotypes out there, Hazel encourages her to speak up, assuring her she will have her back.
Surprise, surprise, Hazel sets Nella up for a fall shortly after when Hazel doesn’t do what she said she would.
As such, in the course of a day, Nella’s bright future at Wagner Books looks uncertain. She is turned into the office pariah. Her only chance of redemption is to apologise to Colin.
And Nella is reluctant to do so.
Fortunately, her boyfriend Owen (Hunter Parrish), who is a middle-school principal, is supportive of her as is her queer best friend Malaika (Brittany Adebumola).
Malaika doesn’t suffer fools easily and she is so protective of Nella that it creates tension between them when Nella forgives Hazel and invites her home for dinner.
Nella and Hazel’s story runs parallel with that of Diana and her best friend and former editor at Wagner Books: Kendra Rae Phillips (April Parker Jones). But there is more to Kendra’s disappearance than Diana and Richard let on.
As Nella works hard to prove herself worthy of becoming an editor, she is entrusted to sign up Jesse Watson (Langston Kerman), a podcast host and black activist who has been on her radar for the longest time.
Jesse, who is not a fan of the publishing house, is also part and parcel of its publicity stunt to do damage control after they dropped Colin as a client after Black Twitter called him out for his racist character.
Not long after, the wheels in Nella’s friendship with Hazel come off when Nella gets some weird messages about Hazel not being who she says she is.
The more Nella and her BFF look into Hazel, they find an almost cult-like society being created by Diana and Richard. Young black women are being plucked from obscurity and turned into success stories, with the help of some mentoring and a secret substance from a jar that changes their personality.
Hazel calls it “CBD for the soul” but Malaika believes it’s to turn people into “fembots”. This is where the mindf**k part comes into play.
Nella realises that she can’t trust anyone, especially Hazel. But the more she resists being recruited, the more dangerous it becomes for her and those around her.
“The Other Black Girl” explores pertinent themes of racism, diversity, empowerment, loyalty, betrayal and integrity.
The casting is ingenious, especially where Daniel and Murray are concerned. Both actresses deliver commendable nuanced performances that cover a wide gamut of emotions.
Also, the script is so well developed that it almost toys with the viewer with a polarised narrative that is laden with twists.
Definitely worth a watch if you like the shows that go against the grain. This one does and then some.
∎ “The Other Black Girl” is streaming on Disney +.