Is it just me, or have there been a lot of book adaptations to the big screen this year? Some have fallen short of successfully capturing the spirit of the novel in a different medium, but others, such as Hulu’s The Other Black Girl, based on the bestselling book by Zakiya Dalila Harris (an executive producer and writer on two of the season’s episodes), not only capture what made the original novel such a gripping read but go beyond it, fleshing out the characters we first meet on the page and bringing t
When Harris’ book was originally released in 2021, it provided a long-overdue insight into the publishing business. The debut novel was inspired by Harris’ own experiences working in the industry — first as an editorial assistant and then as an assistant editor, a job track that mirrors that of the story’s main protagonist, Nella Rogers (played by Sinclair Daniel in the Hulu series).
While Nella has reluctantly grown accustomed to being the only Black woman working for the New York-based publishing house Wagner Books, she has always had her sights set on achieving more for herself — even if her ambitions appear somewhat lofty given how frequently she is not recognised for the full value she brings to the table.
After Wagner suddenly employs another Black woman, Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray), it finally feels like Nella will have a kindred spirit with whom she can speak about her specific professional challenges. It doesn’t take long for Nella to start getting anonymous messages urging her to leave Wagner while she still has the chance. Combine that with the idea that Hazel is attempting to push Nella out of the way so she may advance to a higher editorial position, and Nella is forced to confront the prospect that the organisation that originally granted her her dream job is hiding a deeper, more dangerous plot at its core.
If the comparisons to the original novel peaked your attention, you’ll be glad to hear that Hulu’s version of the plot clearly leans into that welcome blend of suspenseful and humorous beats. We’re just as likely to come across Nella in the midst of a strange psychological crisis or a horrific nightmare that may be a foreshadowing of what’s to come, as we are to come across a really awkward scene between her and one of her white coworkers that can only create a snicker.
Daniel is more than capable of juggling all of the emotional beats that are demanded of her in the show’s lead role — even if Nella’s more conflicted emotions don’t register with the oblivious character with whom she shares a scene, we get the privilege of watching the entire myriad play out across Daniel’s features each and every time.
Although many of Nella’s microaggression-laced interactions with the people she works with at Wagner are played for laughs, there is a more serious and recurring undertone threaded throughout the season — who gets to sit in a position of privilege as an esteemed author, even if the degree of representation in their books is thoughtless at best and more damaging at worst. Not only that but the show questions how “diversity” has become a corporate buzzword, something that can be tossed around and seemingly satisfied with a set number of hires so that CEOs can pat themselves on the back and convince themselves they’re doing enough to change the landscape.
These broader difficulties pervade all of the sequences set in the Wagner building, which is bleached out in unappealing fluorescent lighting that flickers at frightening moments. It’s no surprise that when we finally get to see Nella’s home life, where she can unwind with her well-meaning boyfriend Owen (Hunter Parrish) and her best friend Malaika (Brittany Adebumola), the scenes are warm and inviting, bathed in golden hues, a welcome respite from the harsh conditions of the workplace.
Although the original novel answers a lot of questions by the end — and does so in such a way that you’ll be desperate to turn the pages to find out what happens — Hulu’s adaptation of The Other Black Girl has the runway to expand on a lot of ideas that the novel didn’t have the page space to address. While the book has a narrower variety of views through which it spins the tale, demonstrating everything via a chosen selection of individuals, the series has the benefit of going beyond those points of view through its 10 half-hour episodes (all of which were sent for review).
The majority of this occurs in relation to the principal cast. Murray shines especially brightly in a standalone episode near the end of the season that takes us behind the scenes of Hazel’s life, which was written by Harris herself and effectively feels like a way for the author to elaborate on her most mysterious yet intriguing character. The episode exemplifies how the finest adaptations may not only capture the spirit of the narrative but also go beyond any original constraints that may have supplied limited solutions in order to preserve the mystery.
Scenes in which we learn more about Hazel or spend more time with Owen and Malaika as they conduct their own hilarious investigation do not fall victim to the problem of trying to answer questions that the audience isn’t asking; instead, they enrich the narrative overall and introduce new dimensions, resulting in a viewing experience that is just as enjoyable as reading the book in the first place.
None of the show’s triumphs would be possible without the qualities of The Other Black Girl’s ensemble; Daniel is an actor to watch in the future, ranging from mild bemusement to restrained irritation to undisguised terror and desperation. Murray, who many Riverdale fans will recognise, takes that gentler image and swings it to unsettling effect, but also demonstrates that Hazel has more complicated layers than someone who should merely be viewed as a danger.
Bellamy Young, as Nella’s direct superior and Wagner editor Vera Parini, comes off a bit more sympathetically than her book counterpart, even if she’s mostly oblivious to any deeper goings-on — and spends a fair portion of the story drinking wine on her couch, which seems like a humorous wink to the actress’ previous tenure on Scandal (the fact that the show makes a point to reference Shondaland shows more than once makes this slightly less coincidental, too).
Meanwhile, as Richard Wagner, CEO of the business named after him, Eric McCormack skates the fine line between being totally well-intentioned and potentially knowing more than he lets on. Garcelle Beauvais plays Diana Gordon, a novelist who initially collaborated with Wagner for her bestselling novel Burning Heart, the release of which caused a schism between her and Wagner’s first Black editor, Kendra Rae Phillips, that has never been repaired.
Shakirah DeMesier and Cassi Maddox are clear standouts in the roles of young Diana and Kendra Rae as the show travels back to the days when both women are starting to feel the strain of their professional relationship bleeding into their personal one; a certain talk show scene becomes one of the best moments of the entire series as their conflict reaches a boiling point.
Although the show begins to falter in the second half of the season, the performances of The Other Black Girl’s ensemble elevate any slowing in tempo or dips in tone, leaving you just as eager to press play on each successive episode to find out what happens next. The series is most engaging when the mystery is revealed in bits and pieces, so when we know more answers, certain episodes feel more like they’re running in place rather than moving ahead with any certainty.
Most intriguingly, the finale’s climax deviates significantly from how the novel finished and adds a big twist all on its own, while simultaneously leaving things open-ended. As a standalone story, the novel functioned with a more ambiguous ending, and the show’s plot wouldn’t necessarily benefit from going beyond one season. With autumn approaching, the publication of this series couldn’t be more timing; The Other Black Girl is the ideal binge for anyone looking for a complex genre yarn anchored by interesting characters and a mystery that’s as ageless as it is contemporary.