Review: 'The Other Black Girl' uses humor and horror to tackle workplace racism

For the record:
4:41 p.m. Sept. 13, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated the premiere date of “The Other Black Girl.” It is Wednesday, not Thursday.

Racial inequity, duplicitous bosses and toxic office politics are the backdrop for a larger mystery that unfolds across 10 episodes of Hulu’s light-hearted yet poignant series “The Other Black Girl.”

Adapted from Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel of the same name, the half-hour comedy, horror, mystery series premiering on Wednesday follows nerdy Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel), the only Black female employee at New York publishing house Wagner Books. She’s a brilliant assistant editor bound for greatness, if only she looked more like the other celebrated senior editors whose portraits hang in the main hallway — nearly all are white men. There is a lone Black woman on the wall, the editor Kendra Rae Philips, but she disappeared mysteriously in the 1990s. And her portrait always seems to be slightly askew.

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Nella knows she has an uphill battle at the organization, but doesn’t quite realize how steep until Wagner hires another Black woman, the hip and outgoing Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray). After a bumpy start, the two become fast friends, but there’s something odd about the new girl.

Several mysteries are revealed once Nella begins to speak out about the lack of cultural sensitivity in a forthcoming book by Wagner’s best-selling author, Colin Franklin (Brian Baumgartner). The writer’s portrayal of a Black female character is full of negative stereotypes, including crack cocaine use and an absent baby daddy. Ugh.

Nella’s protestations open up a Pandora’s Box of secrets that date back to the company’s early days, when it was founded by editor in chief Richard Wagner (a bespeckled Eric McCormack, who delivers a wonderfully sinister performance). The story careens into an engrossing, far-fetched conspiracy replete with kidnappings, brainwashing and metaphysical manifestations of former publishing house employees. Discovering Hazel’s true identity, and solving the riddle of what happened to Kendra, become Nella's main goal.

But really, the sleuthing is simply a clever way to unearth the hidden realities of racism and sexism in the workplace, and explore how they wreak havoc on the confidence, dreams and aspirations of a young assistant editor. “The Other Black Girl” turns injustice into an engrossing series by employing humor, heart and imaginary twists. The blinding whiteness and lack of opportunity at Wagner Books should not look unfamiliar to anyone who’s worked for a company that sees itself as progressive while upholding decades of racist policy.

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Daniel is a charming presence, even if the character she plays would rather blend into the wallpaper. And Nella’s best friend Malaika (Brittany Adebumola), steals the show when she’s on screen. In whiter, office-based series of yore, she might have been the generic sassy Black lady character who’s full of one-liners. But in this show, Malaika’s bold and vulnerable. Flippant and warm. Viewers will fall in love with her by Episode 3 or 4. Nella’s boyfriend Owen (Hunter Parrish) plays the straight man, literally and figuratively. Think of him as Fred of “Scooby Doo.”

But it's Nella’s interactions with Hazel that become more and more complicated after she takes advice from the new girl and it gets her in trouble. It appears Hazel is trying to sabotage Wagner's other Black girl, until she makes an abrupt turn and does everything in her power to support Nella. It’s a twisty dynamic that's meant to confuse, but one that mirrors the pressure and competitiveness of a workplace that barely makes room for one minority hire let alone two.

The series was developed by Harris and Rashida Jones, and the duo worked hard at balancing humor with subject matter that’s certainly no laughing matter. They succeeded with “The Other Black Girl,” delivering an intriguing mystery series in the process.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.