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Actress Issa Rae to Students: ‘Success Is When Opportunity Meets Preparation’

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After hitting the upload button for the first episode of her YouTube series, “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” Issa Rae said she fainted from fear.

Although she was nervous about the criticism she would face, she launched the web series in 2011 to explore the life of “J” who navigates through the awkwardness of adolescence.

“I was so scared, but what I wrote in the first episode resonated with people in a way I hoped but didn’t imagine,” said Rae, an award-winning actress, producer, writer and comedian who participated in Cal State Fullerton’s “Beyond the Conversation” series. Hosted by Associated Students Inc. and the Division of Student Affairs, the series invites speakers to campus to engage students in dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Rae is notable for her Peabody Award-winning HBO series, “Insecure,” which garnered her multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. She made her mark on the big screen, starring in Greta Gerwig’s cotton candy colored comedy “Barbie,” which dominated theaters as the biggest box office hit of the summer and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse,” Sony Picture Animation’s highest grossing animated release.   

Diverse Comedy Hitting the Audience’s Funny Bone and Creating ‘Insecure’

Switching off the television and gathering Rae and her four siblings, their mother signaled it was time to play the “don’t laugh and smile game.”

“The objective was to be the last one sitting who hadn’t laughed at anyone,” said Rae. “It toned our comedy skills.”

Despite current tensions in the country, Rae explained that humor is palatable and diverse representation in comedy can create breakthroughs in audience reception.

“You can hit someone’s funny bone, and it makes them open to criticism,” Rae added.

She described the lasting impact of the 1998 American television sitcom, “Will and Grace,” which opened doors for LGBTQ+ representation in the media. 

Issa Rae and moderator
Issa Rae and Maysem Awadalla, ASI president (Courtesy of ASI)

Even for Rae herself, breaking into the Hollywood landscape came with warnings and cautionary tales. She wrote a script with her colleague’s roommate, an ode to ’90s movies like “Love Jones” and Black stories that did not exist in film at the time. Afterward, they traveled from San Francisco to Los Angeles to sell their pitch. 

“We kept receiving feedback that we needed to make the script more ‘multicultural,’” said Rae. “It was very clear that it was code for white voices and characters. It was devastating.”

Although the Hollywood filmmaking industry is “turning off the faucet for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives,” Rae emphasized the importance for Black creatives in positions of power to demonstrate their storytelling capabilities to the world.

Scratching the surface of Black stories within the diaspora, Rae said she is committed to acting, producing, writing projects and hiring writers that accurately reflect the modern Black woman.

During the production of “Insecure,” Rae said she felt that the media pigeonholed representations of Black women as “flawless, fierce and superhuman.” She could not relate and dedicated “Insecure” to portray the awkward experiences and tribulations of contemporary Black women.

Navigating the Entertainment Industry

After graduating from Stanford University in 2007 with her bachelor’s degree in African American studies, Rae created music videos, and wrote and directed plays for fun. On campus, she met screenwriter Tracy Oliver, who helped produce “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” 

“There’s constant imposter syndrome that I face to this day, but ‘The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl’ was such an affirmation that people wanted to see the stories I was releasing,” said Rae.

Issa Rae with CSUF ASI Students
ASI student leaders with Issa Rae (Courtesy of ASI)

Her confidence boosted after her creative projects were met with internet virality and high ratings. She advised CSUF students to build their digital portfolio and explore content creation on social media platforms.

“This room will be the people you can work with, forge bonds, make billions, grow in business and change the world together,” said Rae.

Though the Hollywood landscape is fickle, Rae emphasized that “success is when opportunity meets preparation.”

“This is your world. All the good you want to see, all that you want to say, is in your hands,” said Rae. “You are going to be your biggest believer.”

Written by: Vanessa Siguenza