There are historically Black cities all over the country that have meant so much to our culture. Detroit, Chicago, D.C, New Orleans…but the myth, the history and the pulse of Blackness has always seemed to emanate from Harlem in a way that almost seems like something of fairytales. Hearing stories of the way some of our legends lived, worked, loved, and fought for that historical city—which is made up of a few major streets in Manhattan and the neighborhoods that connect them—can inspire pride and rage simultaneously as conversations around gentrification and who owns the birthplaces of our stories continue to prevail. For a long time, Harlem has been the backdrop of secondary storylines in period pieces that lightly tiptoe on the city’s rich legacy. Whether through lack of willingness or willful ignorance, Harlem has never seemed to get its just due onscreen. Nor have the people who made it the stuff of legends.
Enter Black women.
Girls Trip writer, Tracy Oliver, has put together a remarkable cast of screen heroes and newcomers alike to tell the story of today’s Harlem. Though rapidly changing, Black people are still thriving—loving, losing, winning, learning—in the city. Meagan Good, who expertly plays career-driven and loyal to the soil Camille, is the veteran in a hard-hitting and incredibly talented cast that also boasts guest appearances from Whoopi Goldberg and Jasmine Guy. Grace Byers, best known for her role as Anika Calhoun on Fox’s Empire, is the meek, naive and vulnerable Quinn, whose business is holding on by a string strengthened with her parents’ money which also affords her the liberty of taking care of Shoniqua Shandai’s Angie—an artist with delusions of grandeur and a liberated way of taking up space in the world—and makes for a beautiful display of friendship, accountability, and forgiveness.
Jerrie Johnson’s Tye is the self-assured and über successful tech founder that has her pick of everyone from Instagram models to journalists but often springs for the former and gets to live her truth away from the usual backdrop of trauma and violence that depiction of Queer characters often succumb to. Lastly, Tyler Lepley, P Valley’s unlikely hero Diamond, rounds out the core cast as the charming and yet unsettled blossoming chef, Ian, ex to Good’s Camille, who has made his way back to the city…with a plus one. What Harlem gets deliciously right is simply, us. Us in all of our messiness and in all of our beauty. In all of our processing and perfect imperfections. It gives us the freedom to laugh and to sigh and to fall in love and to “mmhmmm girl”—the way we do. Oliver has created a world that does not put Black characters in a fish tank for someone other than ourselves and for that alone, Harlem is bound to be one of those shows that stays with us, that we protect and praise. That we debate about in group chats and in hair salons alike. It is ours.
21Ninety’s Iman N. Milner caught up with the show’s creator and some of the cast to talk about the beauty of Harlem.
21Ninety: First, I just want to bask in your journey Tracy, from Awkward Black Girl to now…you’ve become a voice for Black women at every stage of their lives. Girls Trip, First Wives Club and now Harlem. How does it feel to be telling this story right now.
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Tracy Oliver: I think it’s the perfect evolution for me. The reason I say that it’s because it’s the one that’s the most personal to me. Girls Trip and First Wives Club are also personal to me but they were never my life. This is the first time that I actually got to channel who I am. This is the one I was actually living and I wrote it because this was my life. It’s a weird journey to come back to something that’s so personal after doing other projects. They’re all celebrations of Black women and that’s important to me but Harlem just feels very specific in a personal way.
This show is going to draw a lot of comparisons—four friends, navigating life and love in a big city—are you guys ready to stand toe to toe with those shows of the past and present?
Tyler Lepley: Oh yeah, we the biggest, what you mean?
I know that’s right.
TL: Nah, I’m kidding. Of course, you’re going to have similarities amongst other shows just like as people we have similarities. One of the biggest ones that I’ve seen, in both reading and watching it, is that yes, it’s a romantic comedy and it’s lighthearted, funny and makes you feel good but there’s lots of space for levity. Some of these conflicts…we really go through them in real life and that helps the comedic element of it. Some of my funniest moments happened in the middle of my darkest times in my life. I think that’s one of the main things that makes it stand out to me.
Meagan Good: For me, this show is a breathe of fresh air. I know we’ve seen shows with four women of color but this is the first time that I really saw myself. I see my friend group in real life. I am excited for people to see themselves in each one of these characters.
TO: I have to say two things. One, when I first wrote it and even when I sold it, there was nothing like it on the air. Nothing. I thought the landscape was wide open for it. In the time since, there’s definitely been a few more shows that have come that are similarly themed. But I think I have a specific perspective in the way I write things, so I don’t worry about the comparisons. I feel like what that does is that it tells creators of color that we can’t all coexist. That we are fighting for one small piece of the pie instead of us all having individual slices. Your story, even if there is some overlap, is going to be different from mine because my life is different than yours. I refuse to buy into the idea that we don’t have a lot of nuances in our experiences just because we’re Black women.
Meagan, you exist in this rare space as a person in this industry who has survived all the ebbs and flows this business has had when it comes to the stories about US that are out there—how does it feel to be helming this show, one that is so authentic, at this time in your career?
MG: I feel very, very grateful and very humbled. At this point in my career, I want to want to be there. I am a big believer in that. I’m always grateful for any opportunity but I want to wake up excited about playing a character and I want to be excited about the people I get to work with. I am in this space where I am truly happy and I really love the character and my quality of life is amazing being around this cast, Tracy—even our crew—just everything about this experience makes me feel extremely fortunate.
Jerrie, depictions of Black queer folk onscreen is an ever-evolving landscape but Tye is this fully realized, successful in both career and love, not a sidekick or an afterthought. How incredible is it to be walking in her shoes and what have you learned from Tye?
Jerrie Johnson: It is very incredible and so beautiful. I think I have learned more about what’s necessary and what hasn’t been seen. I spent three years in San Francisco, so I know a lot of Black techies and it’s a very tight knit group because there aren’t a lot of them. They come together to protect each other, so bringing in that aspect of it—it’s fresh and inspiring. Also, the activism of Tye creating this app for Queer people of color to find partners. She created a space that doesn’t exist. Also, I know I have strong masculine energy but I dress very feminine but through Tye, I, as Jerrie, have learned how to externalize that without getting too far away from myself. Tye has really gotten me comfortable embracing…the ni**a in me, you know?
Shoniqua, Angie is the quintessential artist trying to find her way and she’s holding tight to what she feels her image should be in the world but she also feels the most free on the show. What excites you most about telling her story?
Shoniqua Shandai: Oooo, ok. Honestly, the thing that excites me most is that I’ve seen a shadow of this woman. I’ve seen a glimpse of her in other pieces and have even had moments to play her but it’s one-liners and jokes. We have never gotten to see this woman dream or be a real human being who’s yearning for something. We have never seen her striving for something other than supporting someone else’s story. When I see her I see my sisters. I see my aunts, I see bits of myself. I am so excited that this kind of woman is finally getting to tell her own story.
Tyler, tell me about your character Ian. What drew you to him and what have you learned through playing him?
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TL: He’s a gifted chef. He’s very studied and takes his artistry very seriously. He’s very passionate—about his career and his love life. Sometimes, there’s a conflict between the two. He’s a man in progress trying to figure out who he is and what he stands for. What drew me to him is the full juxtaposition for what he is. On one side, you have this very strong, passionate character and there’s room for lots of virility—his manliness. But on the flip side, there’s this tenderness. He’s an artist and he’s vulnerable. One side of him is rigid and the other side is fluid. That was evident when I first read it. That’s one thing about Tracy (Oliver), she writes the characters very clearly. It was my job to really flesh that out and bring it to life. What I’ve learned from Ian is that going after your passion can bring forth everything you always wanted. If you’re brave enough to leave everything you want to chase something, you can obtain the life you always wanted. 10 years ago, I left Philly and had no idea what I was going to do but I knew what I wanted to do—a decade later, I’m living it.
For you, Grace, Quinn exists in this delicate space of extreme privilege but she is struggling the same way a lot of women are to find true love and to find herself, so have you learned from playing this character?
Grace Byers: Oh God, I learned a lot. Since you mentioned privilege…I mean, I did not grow up privileged at all. It was definitely a struggle for my mom being deaf and Black, raising two little girls on her own. There were a lot of times where the last thing we had was money. When you’re in a position like that you think that when you get money or access to some type of financial stability that you’ll be happier. And not that it doesn’t make things more smooth in certain circumstances but if you think that’s where you will find your happiness, you will have a harsh realization that that is the last thing that will fix it. These things are ephemeral, they are very temporary. So I love that with Quinn that she understands her finances don’t bring her joy. Sometimes I think it’s hard to relate to a person like Quinn because it’s like ‘girl please you have money!’ but she understands that you can have so many other things that need attention. Aside from that, I’d also say her bravery. I love her courage to face that and say she has needs that can’t be bought. Being able to speak that out is something that I admire of her.
Quinn and Angie have an interesting dynamic—one could call it “dependent”—but they ride for each other and that’s something we all want in our friendships, what can you guys say about these two and the sisterhood they’ve created?
SS: I think they’re yin and yang. There’s a beautiful way that they complete each other. Well, not only financially she completes Angie (laughs) but also there’s a part of Angie that hides what she deeply wants. She’s a little bit of a hopeless romantic but she doesn’t think it’s possible for herself. She’s had disappointment in her career and also from men and it’s Quinn’s hopefulness that gives Angie permission to be hopeful as well. And Quinn needs Angie’s abrasiveness. She needs someone to take up for her because she is so giving. So I can take advantage of her but no one else can. Angie protect her. And in the opposite Quinn adds a softness to Angie. Angie has a consideration because of Quinn that she may not have had out in the world on her own.
GB: And I think that although Quinn constantly makes a quip of “girl, when you gone move out?”..she doesn’t want Angie to go too far out of her life because there’s that reminder of the things that each of us needs. When Angie’s around she reminds Quinn to use her voice. When Quinn is around she reminds Angie that love and hope are real. We don’t want to be too far away from that. Even though they live together, they still go out to eat and Angie comes to the store to work—those are choices that they are making to be around one another even outside of sharing a living space. They need one another.
Ok, so Tyler I am going to put you in the hot seat and make you speak for all men in the millennial generation—if there’s one thing you feel that men get wrong in love, what would that be?
TL: One thing that we get wrong as men—my experience in life has taught me this through taking some stumbles—is the skillset and how important it is to listen. A woman will tell you what she wants if you just listen. A lot of times we’re so stubborn and so hardheaded, we want to put our foot down and tell them how it is and what’s going on. There’s room for that—don’t get it twisted, there’s a whole side of us that women need. You shouldn’t lose that as a man. But, again, it’s like the juxtaposition that I talk about with Ian—don’t be afraid to be open and tender so that you can feel each other. We can’t hear each other when we’re talking too much. Without talking your ear off, I will say that’s the thing we need to work on.
What are you most excited for people to see on this show?
MG: I am excited for women to feel empowered and to understand that you can be strong, for sure, but you can also be vulnerable, insecure and not have everything together. We are all on this journey of trying to figure it out and the more transparent we are about that, the more we give people the license to just be themselves.
JJ: I want people to see and experience queerness authentically and unapologetically. I am a Queer Black woman and I am not in the margins of any place in my life. We need to see authentic queer relationships and authentic queer sex onscreen. I think that’s really important and I am so glad that Tye exists.
Tracy, Whoopi Goldberg, Jasmine Guy, Robert Ri’Chard…even Malcolm D. Lee. How it important was it for you to bridge the gap between all the people and content we’ve all loved and celebrated culturally with ‘Harlem’?
TO: It was a dream. The 90s kid in me died when Sister Mary Clarence actually agreed to do this show. When I first met Whoopi, I was in awe of her. I was scared of her, honestly. To me, she’s a legend. I just have so much respect and I could not believe that she even said ‘yes’. I ended up crying…I was truly a basket case in her presence. The same thing with Jasmine Guy. I’m like I grew up watching you guys and I am so grateful. Those are the moments as an artist where you just realize how lucky you are to do this for a living. With Malcolm, we’d worked on Girls Trip together, and that was such a magical pairing that I felt it would be great to have him direct Harlem. I felt so lucky that he agreed. It’s a totally different vibe from Girls Trip but I think our synergy still shows.