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Publish or Perish: “The Other Black Girl” reviewed

A common belief is that books are always better than their screen adaptations. But what about when they’re not ― as is the case with, say, “American Psycho,” which turned Bret Easton Ellis’ impenetrable 1991 novel into a gripping big-screen thriller? Or what if the situation is too complicated to describe with a simple either/or comparison?

The latter more aptly applies to “The Other Black Girl,” which was the novel to read two summers ago, when it hit shelves with its intriguing title. The word “other” suggests an unsettling and all-too-relatable question: If one Black woman is the “other,” who’s the first one? And can that positioning change? Can one become the prominent Black girl, “Single White Female”-style, while the other… fades into the background?

Those are the conundrums at the core of Zakiya Dalila Harris’ page turner, which begins as a straightforward yet fascinating story about what happens when Nella, the only Black woman at a largely white book publisher, meets Hazel, a Black woman who just started at the company.

The narrative starts out with a welcome exhale ― “Oh finally, another Black girl!” ― then descends into something less intimate and decidedly more sinister. But because it’s such a sharp pivot toward the end of the 368-page book, it comes off as a bit clunky. And it just barely recovers from that.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel struggled to handle the unraveling of its sinister twist. While the series explores its genre elements a little better, it has its own shortcomings. You might expect that a twist of some kind is in the cards, because Hazel is shady from the jump. But the detour from suspenseful drama to a straight-up thriller — with all its accompanying revelations — could have used more exposition.

Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl,” from showrunners Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey, mostly remedies that issue. It helps that it’s got 10 half-hour episodes to expand on what the novel only implies in its twist, and that Harris herself was in the writers room to keep the story honest.

That last part is felt even as the series begins, which should please fans of the book. It features many identifiable elements from the novel, chiefly everything that often comes with being Black in white spaces: the gaslighting, the discomfort, the ostracizing and, of course, the otherness.

But most of all, the Hulu adaptation introduces its more sinister elements much sooner — like in the opening scene, where a Black woman (Cassi Maddox) in the ’80s experiences a nightmare on the New York subway — and weaves them throughout the subsequent storyline.

In its present-day narrative, we meet Nella (Sinclair Daniel), an eager, young, Black and Afro’d professional navigating the murky waters of a largely white industry.

Like the novel, Hulu’s adaptation perfectly captures the pride-swallowing feeling of being the one Black woman in a white office having to co-sign on a beloved, problematic white client (Brian Baumgartner). Despite “The Other Black Girl” dropping on a mainstream streamer that appeals to a much more general viewership, it maintains the book’s specific rhetoric. Reddout, Hickey and their writing team, which includes Rashida Jones and several scribes from the “Mixed-ish” universe (working with a much better premise here), borrow a lot from Harris’ Black girl shorthand.

Much of that is implicit, but it’s still there. And, as in the novel, it keeps Nella in constant conversation with the Black women in the audience who can appreciate her low-key eye rolls.

There are the microaggressions at the office, the “But I’m an ally” white colleague, the expectation to co-sign on a problematic white author (“The Office” star Brian Baumgartner) simply because they need even one Black voice to do so. That last part is the event that ignites the conflict in the story.

Nella is understandably bothered by the whole thing, and she has no one there to talk to about it. So she goes to her bestie/sounding board Malaika (a pitch-perfect Brittany Adebumola) to vent.

When Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) starts at Wagner Books, some audiences might expect things to be different for Nella. She’d at least have a confidant or someone to have her back during the many awkward moments. Does that happen? Eh, kind of. But it also really does not. Hazel is sly enough to make Nella believe she’s on her side, even when Nella begins to doubt that confidence. That’s how gaslighting works.

The fact that both the screenwriters’ story and Harris’ book feed off the built-in level of trust among Black women, based most immediately upon their shared race (and even their hair), makes this narrative feel disconcerting at its core.

Of course you expect two Black women in an ultra-white space to be there for each other. That’s part of why the relationship between Nella and Malaika becomes increasingly important as the story goes on.

As any Black woman could attest, that friendship guarantees the comfort of not needing to code-switch (which Nella barely seems to do anyway), even as you’re expected to do so around others.

That makes the seemingly minor but pertinent details involving Nella’s proximity to whiteness just as interesting as her rapport with Malaika. Those include the fact that she, like Harris, grew up in a predominantly white Connecticut neighborhood, lives in the majority-white Brooklyn suburb of Bay Ridge and has a white, live-in boyfriend (Hunter Parrish).

Nella is a woman who, despite the whiteness that surrounds her, still desires to center Black voices and talents like those of Hazel, herself and the Black female editors who came before them. That’s an inclination many Black women share. So it’s difficult to consider that Hazel, or any Black female character, wouldn’t at least have the best intentions for Nella in mind.

“The Other Black Girl” knows how to portray the complexity of Black female friendships, and even some of the nuances of being in a Black-white interracial relationship. But once it veers into its more heightened elements, it stumbles. “The Other Black Girl” was never, and still isn’t, about the mounting tension between two Black women. That would be one-dimensional and tedious, and would strip both characters of their otherwise textured identities.

Rather, the series takes its time peering into the environments that breed that acrimony. In this case, it’s overwhelmingly white corporate America that engenders the kind of relationship that Nella and Hazel have — and even the one that Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais), Wagner’s only Black female author, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, has with them.

That’s also part of what struck Harris about Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novel “Passing,” which inspired her protagonist’s name and central themes in “The Other Black Girl.”

“It’s such an interesting look at how two very good Black women feel these pressures from white society, and how they act with one another versus how they act with everyone else,” Harris said of Larsen’s novel in a 2021 Esquire interview. “‘Passing’ influenced me hugely when I was thinking about Nella and Hazel — how there’s envy, friendship, animosity, and class at play.”

Hulu’s adaptation of Harris’ novel delicately delves into each of those themes as well, even giving Hazel more of a backstory, and thankfully not relying on the genre elements to show that story instead of simply telling it. That’s an issue too many recent shows like “Them” have failed to navigate.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. It brings so much of Harris’ story to the fore, even carrying over the malevolent subplot. But, like in the novel, that part doesn’t come together all the way.

A malevolent subplot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the book. And the Hulu series can’t find a way to connect it to an otherwise intriguing subplot either.

Whatever we’re supposed to glean from that subplot doesn’t register on screen any more than it does on the page. It’s also just not necessary. The evolving relationships in this story, and the motivations animating them, are what make it interesting.

On the positive side, the multiple eras in the series are much more cleanly executed than in the book, and grow more relevant as the story goes on. (Pay attention to the year stamps and, as always, the hair.) They paint a pattern of this specific Black professional dynamic across decades, and help bring the themes of the story further into focus.

While Harris’ novel remains a must-read, if only so you can be taken on its wild journey, the Reddout- and Hickey-led series has terrifically haunting bookends that cradle the narrative.

Daniel is in most of the scenes and serves remarkably as the audience’s wide-eyed proxy. But the entire cast delivers, including a cunning Murray and supporting turns from Maddox and Beauvais, as well as Bellamy Young and Eric McCormack as Wagner’s increasingly dubious editors.

Even with the show’s flaws, fans of Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl” might want an additional season (the final moment leaves some room for one). But, especially since Harris has only written the one novel (so far), this should absolutely conclude here.

Let what works in this story stick with you, as it was always intended to.