It is something powerful to see a small section of your experience reflected back to you, particularly in the moments that aren’t spectacular. The quiet, relaxed joy of the everyday, and all of the flaws that can accumulate alongside it, aren't often afforded to people of color on television — at least until recently, with shows like Atlanta and Insecure. Into the mix, premiering this week, comes the web series Brown Girls, written by Fatimah Asghar and directed by Sam Bailey. The show is loosely based off of Asghar’s longtime real-life friendship with Chicago poet/singer Jamila Woods, and stars Nabila Hossain as Leila, a queer writer who is confident, comfortable, funny — and, like Asghar, Muslim. Sonia Denis plays her friend Patricia, a black musician balancing her work, life, and friendships.
The idea of attaching “now more than ever” to Muslim narratives can be exhausting for Muslims who have lived those narratives and spoken them into emptiness for years. “There are as many different ways of being Muslim as there are Muslims,” Asghar tells me. “America flattens Muslimness. They conflate it with Arabness, for example, and don't often think that there are Muslims of all different races. We’re all so multifaceted, and it’s important to not erase anyone. I want to broaden the scope of what it is to be Muslim.”
What lives best in Brown Girls, particularly for anyone who grew up Muslim with a very close attachment to the shame of indulging in the forbidden, is the comfort in seeing a Muslim character who is connected to her faith but still working in that which would be considered Haram. “Leila is very much Muslim, but she drinks," Asghar says. "She’s queer. She has sex. It’s important to see a character like her on television. The more we’re allowed to do that, the more human we become. Showing the amount of identities and personalities that people live in is important, and I don’t think a lot of people of color get that on TV.”
At its core, Brown Girls is a simple story of friendship, which might be the most revolutionary thing about it. Asghar does not see her show merely as a reaction to white art: “This isn’t a response to Girls," she says emphatically. "I never watched that show.” But it is a work of art that homes in on a familiar feeling of otherness for many of us, and makes it spectacular. “My friends would watch these shows," she says, "and they would feel written out of what it meant to be a girl, or what it meant to be a woman.”
Asghar, who is now 27, found success early on as a poet, allowing her to be courted by MFA programs and nominated for awards. Despite this, she says that her approach to the work shifted as she grew. “I think about when I first started writing, and I had no idea who I was writing for. I was trying to get acknowledged by these prestigious institutions, many of them white. When I started mentoring young people of color, the urgency became different. I wanted to work on poems and stories that would make my younger self feel good. I don’t want my story to be told by someone who isn’t me, or by someone who has no cultural understanding of my life.”
That is the key that stands out, and the reason that Brown Girls, much of its cast and crew being women of color, feels so refreshing. If we don’t write our own stories, someone who doesn’t look like us might, and they certainly might not have our best interests in mind when they do. Monolithic marginalized characters are still all too common on-screen — which is why the work of writing the complex interior of a life is a risk worth taking. For Asghar, who had no major screenwriting experience before taking on Brown Girls, it felt like a calling. “There’s no one right way to tell a story,” she tells me. “There are many. As long as we can have multiple voices depicting their experiences, we’re heading towards the right direction.”
A thrilling and unique element of Brown Girls rests in the fact that it is telling the story of an interracial friendship occupied by two women of color from different backgrounds. Like their real-life counterparts, Leila is South Asian, and Patricia is black. I was invested in this, as it reflects the communities that I am in and have thrived in, artistic and otherwise. The leads in the show, and their relationship, speak to a threading together of connections and histories within communities of color, and do so in a gentle and thoughtful way. The type of interracial bonding we most frequently see on television is a friendship between a white person and a black person, with the white person typically having some epiphany about life at the end; the stakes are higher when taking on a portrayal of cultures that overlap more intensely, with concerns that are adjacent but not always entirely the same. Asghar attributes this lens to her upbringing. “I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before it was gentrified,” she tells me. “There were a lot of poor people of color, and a lot of immigrants. We were eating each other’s food, always trying to pick up each other’s languages. We were trying to figure out America together as young people, and doing it to a soundtrack of hip-hop and rallying around popular culture.”
Woods and Asghar met as undergraduates at Brown University. Today they are both artists working and living in Chicago, and the city's influence runs deep in Brown Girls, which is in part about the importance of carving out a small home within a home that is de facto segregated and increasingly gentrified. “I’m so interested in how people of color relate to each other, because so often we get portrayed in a binary," Asghar says. "When we see portrayals of Chicago, they're often really stark. It’s all white, or it’s all black, or it’s all Latinx. That's not my life! My life has all these people from these communities together. We miss out on good conversations about our shared cultures because it seems like we’re trying to protect this binary that exists, or trying to protect ourselves from whiteness and appropriation. And I wanted to show another thing, another way.”
Chicago is also a major presence on the series's soundtrack, supervised by Woods (who performs Brown Girls's theme song). All but one of the musicians featured in the series are Chicagoans of color, and their songs add up to a vital portrait of the city's grassroots scene at a time when it is thriving. Asghar cites Woods's 2016 album HEAVN as an inspiration for the show: “The way love is articulated on the album is inspiring," she says. "There’s really only one type of love, but [Woods] articulates it in so many different ways. Love for her people, love for her city, love for her friends, love for her family. I wanted the show to do that, too.”
Brown Girls was made for viewers who have been eager to see themselves, but it's also for those who are just now feeling introduced to the urgent need to see others. It is one of those great works of art that faces its own people at the same time as it invites others in. At its core, it’s a love story about two friends trying to survive, and doing so with little consideration of any gaze but the gaze that they turn toward each other. When I was young, and Muslim, and not living up to any standards that were set for me, I wanted more than anything to not feel alone, or at least to feel like I could still come back to prayer, despite everything. Leila is the Muslim character I ached to see on a screen, any screen, during my formative years. Brown Girls is an on-screen achievement because it lives in the world the way its creators dreamed it would: echoing backward to all of the younger selves who needed it then.