February 19, 2018

Ibra Ake, writer for hit TV show “Atlanta” talks about strategy

Ibra Ake writer for TV Show Atlanta - FilmHubATL

FX tv series Atlanta is one of the hottest—and most different—shows out there. It’s set in today’s Atlanta hip-hop scene, where college dropout Earnest “Earn” Marks is trying to break into the biz off the imminent success of his rapper cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, while navigating relationships including with his daughter’s mom, Vanessa “Van” Keefer.

Earn is played by Donald Glover, who Tina Fey brought on as a writer on 30 Rock at age 23, but who’s had a multitude of career directions as a rapper (Childish Gambino), director, comedian, producer, movie actor, DJ and songwriter.

The show features the “Hotlanta” energy of its dynamic and predominantly black city, juxtaposed with the realistic lives of some of its citizens. It punctuates its youthful sense of irony with a killer music playlist by the likes of Migos, Future, Kamasi Washington, Outkast and others.

This combination has caught fire with audiences and critics, winning an Emmy, a Peabody, two Golden Globes, an NAACP Image Award, and garnering 100 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

A lot of time has elapsed since its initial 10-episode run blew up in late 2016. Season 2 is coming in spring of 2018. The wait time seems to have only built up anticipation.

GQ did a story about the team of creative writers and thinkers—most of them black, young, who go by the collective name of Royalty—behind the show and its cultural credibility.

One of them is show writer and contributor Ibra Ake.

“His role as a creative guide and resource spans across the collective’s different albums and projects, including Atlanta, where he helped to adapt the show’s tone to its marketing outreach,” writes GQ’s Robert Kelly.

Ake, who grew up in Nigeria and New Jersey, came to CSU Monterey Bay last week to show a couple of full episodes and break it all down in a talk with film students in the Cinematic Arts Department.

One episode, titled “Trans Racial,” takes the form of a talk show, where there is a story within the story about a black man named Antoine who wants to be known as Harrison, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. He wears clothes from Patagonia, practices ordering IPA beer and talking about Game of Thrones in the mirror, and tries to get his family to walk with him to the farmers market.

Everyone gets it in this episode. Black people, white people, trans people, liberals, conservatives. It’s one of the distinguishing traits of the show; you never know quite where it’s going to take its humor.

The other episode he screened takes place at a Juneteenth party in a mansion, with issues of class, appropriation, allies, selling out and coming up, swirling and bubbling like a soup.

Ake was indulgent with the students, staying long after the group discussion for private conversations. But here are a dozen of his most salient/funny/contentious comments:

1. We call it Lena Dunham syndrome when you want to be perfect and say the right stuff all the time. We say a lot of politically incorrect stuff in our writers’ room, saying our ideas out loud. It’s a safe zone. We kind of say the worst things on our minds and analyze it. It can be very scary. It’s like a group therapy session.

2. There is this thing with the whole transgender and race conversation where if you’re on the top of the food chain—a certain income, societal background and race, certainly—you get to do whatever you want. The Bruce Jenner story is about incredible acceptance and privilege.

3. On [news talk shows], why, when there’s a huge debate about something complex, why do we have [rapper] Camron representing black people? There’s a little bit of minstrel to it.

4. We lean liberal on a lot of stuff. Ultimately, with freedom of speech, you can say terrible, mean things to me, as liberal as I am, and because I think that freedom of speech is protected, that’s fine.

5. We have a bunch of good lessons we want to put in a show, and then we try to make it funny. We had the Justin Bieber episode, where Justin Bieber is black. That’s fun.

6. I make fun of [Aziz Ansari’s] Master of None a lot. I also like the show. No one there is really mean. Me and my friends are really cynical. We usually mine really self-hating stuff. A lot of [Atlanta] characters represent our worst qualities. We talk about gray areas a lot. Life is a big gray area.

7. The city of Atlanta is really buzzing. Marvel has offices down there. Even Baby Driver was filmed down there—you wouldn’t realize it because there’s zero black people in the movie, for Atlanta.

8. It irks you when [allies] are being too supportive. Why are we distrustful of that?

9. I have this note in the writers’ room about going to a white school and learning that cheating is part of the process of becoming a successful student. That’s how a lot of time people are successful. [People of color] are always taught to fight fair, but that’s not the way the world works.

10. I think [show director] Hiro [Murai] is really good at misinterpreting things in a positive way. He’s Japanese-American and he gets cultural references differently. There is beauty in that. He’ll make things softer than we intended, or darker than we intended. Without being micromanagey, you want your script to be a great guide.

11. We in the younger generation have to learn multiple things to survive. I had to be a photographer, and a graphic designer, and edit short content for ad agencies when I was just hustling in New York. It makes life easier if you practice [these skills] to the point it’s like shooting free throws.

12. It’s better to be remembered than to be safe.

By Walter Ryce

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