Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel “The Other Black Girl,” inspired by her experiences working at a New York publishing house, begins with a seductive premise. A young woman named Nella is an editorial assistant and the only Black employee at the otherwise all-white Wagner Books. And one day, she’s joined by a new hire named Hazel, the other Black girl of the title.
“It’s like Wagner realized it’s 2023 and it can’t be just one of us anymore,” says Nella, who is initially excited. So, is Hazel friend or foe?
The 10-episode Hulu adaptation, from showrunners Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey (and Harris, who also writes here), is a smartly observed workplace satire and thriller. Flirting with horror tropes is a very subtle way of highlighting the disturbing themes of the story; “I am the least racist person I know!” from the faux-polite crankiness of limousine liberals who say things like. Nella’s concerns that Hazel is actively sabotaging her.
Sinclair Daniel captures Nella’s wonderful blend of geekiness and down-to-earth sincerity as she struggles to keep her head above water in a business that’s nearly ready to drown her. He’s thoughtful, smart and angry. “Don’t let this place get you,” says a co-worker. But there is something closed About that office. And then Nella finds a note in her coat pocket: “Release Wagner now.” Other strange and confusing things start to happen. Is Nella imagining this or is it really happening? Horror movie-style fear and uneasiness is a perfect metaphor for these types of workplace experiences.
Her boss (Bellamy Young) is extremely demanding and equally resistant to Nella’s suggestions to bring in Black writers. Or reconsider a problematic manuscript by one of its star white writers. Nella is forever being asked to compromise her principles and bite her tongue. But when Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) enters the stall next to her, the newbie shares pointed glances that indicate familiarity, encouraging Nella to stand up for herself. “If you have any questions…” Nella said when they first met. “I have questions about all of this” is Hazel’s response. I see what you see, he just says this. And if you want to do something about it, I’ll have your back.
The truth is more complex.
What’s Hazel’s game by the way? Murray’s performance is wonderfully inscrutable, sweet one moment and harder to read the next. Friendly, confident and fashion-forward, she has a Telfar bag on her arm. He’s conscious about the optics he projects, adjusting them one way or another when he’s in the office.
Nella, by contrast, isn’t much of a code-switcher. She longs for even just a bit of Black community at work, but must deal with the gossipy office politics at Wagner Books while analyzing Hazel’s mixed messages. Nella succeeds in some areas — the company president (Eric McCormack) is persuaded to bring back one of Wagner’s few Black writers (Garcelle Beauvais) to run her imprint — but even that isn’t quite what it seems.
This becomes clear when Nella comes into contact with a secret society that can turn Black women into the Talented Tenth equivalent of Stepford wives. A very bright and close-knit group that has infiltrated white power structures and shiny ways. Is this a carefully considered way to portray Black people? Or is it something harder to figure out, a devil’s bargain in exchange for a certain kind of success?
The story suddenly dives into magical realism, raising the stakes from the idiosyncratic tension and intrigue of this one workplace into a larger, conspiracy-flavored narrative. However, this part of the narrative is not developed enough to make full sense. The genre switch distracts rather than deepens all the great observations from the season’s first half about Nella and Hazel’s difficult interpersonal negotiations.
Still, there’s a lot to love about this series, from the masterful performances (Beauvais may be better known these days as a cast member of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” but she’s terrific and sly here) to the look of the show. He spends most of his time in Wagner’s opulent offices.
All those sharp right angles could also be a visual representation of the ways Nella’s ambitions shrink at every turn. Until now.
“The Other Black Girl” — 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Hulu
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.