Just the other day, a friend was telling me how hard it is for young people to move up in the publishing world. “Basically, you’ve got to wait for someone above you to vacate their position, and enter a chain of movement once they do,” they told me. Those spots rarely open up, they added, because they are often held for an executive’s entire career. Instead, other positions are created, ones that offer new titles but are really just lateral moves within a company. Congratulations: You just got “promoted” from editorial assistant to executive editorial assistant; your reward is no difference in pay and sitting in the same office chair with wonky hydraulics that keeps sinking closer to the ground a little more each day.
Now, try to imagine being a woman of color in this scenario. That’s the experience at the core of The Other Black Girl, a new Hulu series premiering Sept. 13, which is based on the 2021 bestselling novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Like the book, the show tracks the career aspirations of Nella (Sinclair Daniel), an assistant editor at the fictional publishing house Wagner Books who’s looking to get a leg up in the industry. Not unsurprisingly for book publishing, Nella is the only person of color in her entire office, trying to trump tokenism and create change from the inside while working toward her dream job.
That’s far easier said than done, especially when the equally ambitious Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) starts at Wagner, making Nella one of two Black girls in the office. Though Hazel’s presence is initially a salve for Nella’s day-to-day headaches of coffee runs and pushing back on problematic manuscripts, Nella begins to suspect that her new co-worker’s presence has shifted the office’s culture toward something more macabre. Though its plot becomes convoluted as tensions ramp up, The Other Black Girl’s consistently terrific pacing and magnetic performances keep the series from feeling too reductive or inconsistent. It ultimately crafts a silly but sensible horror-comedy about the perils of ambition in an industry hellbent on crushing it.
From the moment Hazel joins Wagner, Nella feels a weight lifted from her shoulders. She had just about reached her limit with the announcement of Pins and Needles, the new book by Wagner’s star author Colin Franklin (Brian Baumgartner), which Nella’s boss Vera (Bellamy Young) champions—despite it being rife with Black stereotypes. Nella is convinced that it’s her duty to speak up if she wants to prove that she has what it takes to be an editor someday. After all, that’s what her icon, Kendra Rae Phillips, did as Wagner’s first and only Black female editor—until she quit her job in 1988 and was never heard from again.
It’s clear from the start of the series that something is very awry at Wagner Books, and the office’s predilection for Hazel’s agreeable nature over Nella’s ardent determination is merely the tip of the iceberg. The show’s writing is unapologetically heavy-handed when it comes to communicating that eeriness, and the horror elements are sometimes downright hokey. It’s not long after Vera tells Nella that “part of excelling [at Wagner] is being diplomatic” before Nella finds a note in her bag that simply reads: “LEAVE WAGNER NOW.” If The Other Black Girl’s cast weren’t so adept at conveying these rather awkward plot beats with such earnestness, the show would stumble far more than it ultimately does.
“The Other Black Girl is one of the rare pieces of recent, “diverse” mainstream media that doesn’t feel like its stars signed on to perform a service.”
The Other Black Girl is one of the rare pieces of recent, “diverse” mainstream media that doesn’t feel like its stars signed on to perform a service (or, in the case of its white cast, prove how woke they are by poking fun at themselves). The series doesn’t aim to teach so much as it does to entertain, and it does that job fabulously. No one here—the series’ writers included—seems to be under the impression that this show is saying anything particularly revelatory about structural inequalities in the workplace, which is precisely why it occasionally manages to feel like something new. With a little self-seriousness wiped away, The Other Black Girl can effectively juggle social commentary alongside its unexpected twists and turns, without letting either fall by the wayside.
Daniel is especially good at that balancing act, playing Nella with the right combination of intention and appropriate, world-weary suspicion. She and Murray conjure a completely believable friend chemistry, at least before Nella starts to question Hazel’s motivations. Daniel and Murray have a glimmering rapport, one that’s almost shiny enough to mask some of the show’s rote characterizations. I could often see the pair struggling through some of the series’ cringe-worthy lines. (Though it’s not exactly incorrect, who the hell is colloquially calling Megan Thee Stallion “Hot Girl Meg”?) But despite The Other Black Girl fitting more snugly with common liberal ideologies than radical ones, it’s not a detriment to the show; they feel less self-congratulatory and more like an attempt to introduce viewers to workplace imbalances on a digestible, mass-appeal scale.
It would be easy to say that The Other Black Girl is like if Jordan Peele made The Devil Wears Prada, but the show doesn’t feel like yet another irresponsible attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the director’s storytelling. While the comparisons to Peele’s filmography—which has done a great job at cleverly presenting Black-led stories of injustice to white viewers without oversimplification—are inevitable, they’re also unfair. The Other Black Girl isn’t trying to lead with social criticism; rather, it develops into an intriguing slice of mystery-horror first and foremost. At the same time, the show is snappy and a quick binge, never too caught up in its own commentary to warrant the comparisons it will undoubtedly draw. Even when it hits a slight snag right in the middle of the first season, it finds its way back for a thrilling (if ridiculous) jaunt to the finish line.
The Other Black Girl’s cultural commentary may not be all that incisive or fresh, but it makes up for its lack of insight with a breezily paced puzzle that provides one of the upcoming Halloween season’s best binges. It even manages to ask some engaging questions along the way, refusing to sacrifice too much of its innate politics. Though those queries won’t be enough to revolutionize the system like Nella so desperately wants to do, The Other Black Girl will be accessible enough to make stars out of its pair of leads, and that’s an exciting prospect all on its own.