Harlem, by Tracy Oliver of Girl’s Trip fame is a series that centres four Black women, best friends, following them as they navigate the complex world of dating, careers, girl bossing and microaggressions in a world familiar to them but slowly changing and succumbing to gentrification amongst other things. It mashes up the better elements of Sex and The City, Girlfriends, and a dashing of its own identity with witty dialogue, funny situations and honest to goodness fashion. The women are strong and fun and fearless, relatable, annoying and above all else, flawed which is why we are rooting for all of them. Yes, even Camille!! UGH!
Camille played by Meagan Good is for all intents, the lead character; a popular assistant professor at Columbia University she is on the tenure track, or at least she thinks she is until this goes pear shaped. Her career is why she broke up with her boyfriend almost fiancé unbeknownst to Camille, Ian played by Tyler Lepley. We meet him on his return from Paris where he has been honing his craft as a chef. Camille was meant to head to Paris with him but life had other plans thank goodness it was not a Rachel – Ross will she get off the plane affair, I’d have really hated that for her.
Quinn played by Grace Byers is a trust funded fashion designer, who is constantly trying to prove herself to her parents and desperate to be bae’d up. Angie, played by the most fabulous Shoniqua Shandai the Lynn of the group, she is the struggling and talented singer- see? LYN! lives on Quinn’s couch and is in equal parts annoying and most fun of the quartet. I found myself rooting for her and wanting to slap her at the same time. I wish her better in season two. My favourite character is Tye played by Jerrie Johnson, a tech mogul whose love life alone deserves its own mini-sode to run alongside. She has created an app for queer Black singles, being a lesbian herself, Tye is acutely aware of the need for a safe space for Black and queer singles but is ever so conflicted when it comes to her romantic interests, especially when her most significant is a White lady journalist.
Together and apart, the women face obstacles that intertwine with each other. Camille, has to deal with the return of Ian from Paris, but Ian is also engaged and has plans to open a white-backed restaurant throwing out an institution in Harlem. This situation presents a conundrum for even us the watchers; its forces us to think about how much we show support to our institutions in our neighbourhoods…do we really? Because Camille has not dined there since goodness knows when but she is front and centre with the placard and giving stomp speeches.
There is also that element of a love triangle with her budding romance with Jameson Royce, who is ideal in all the senses of the word, but something is still quite lacking for Camile. I mean I quite liked him, A LOT for her, I did not want her pining for Ian after SHE LEFT HIM and HE IS ENGAGED… UGH! SEE WHAT I MEAN.
More than anything Harlem highlights the many obstacles faced by Black women as we try to constantly Black Girl Magic in a world that keeps telling us that in order to win within our boxes, we need to diminish our shine, a little bit, every time. Camille grapples with self-doubt as she fails to impress her idol Dr Pruitt, played by Whoopi Goldberg, after the firing of her previous mentor. She has to fight for Pruitt’s attention, with a young whippersnapper do-gooder, which keeps chipping away at her self-esteem as she constantly falls over to impress Pruitt.
Self-care is an afterthought in the face of the many impossibilities that means Camille misses her appointment with her therapists frequently,
There is the tension between mother and daughter; Quinn and her mother played by the inimitable Jasmine Guy who finds ways to gaslight her daughter’s fledgeling fashion business and never fails to remind her of what she walked away from with a secure career as an investment banker. It is that thing of being children of immigrants and them wanting that sure footed career as opposed to flighty creative industries, as they like to see it, like fashion. These women are us and we are them because we see ourselves in them so easily. Every day we juggle trying to be excellent and Black in a world that constantly fails to bet on us.
Her roommate Angie, the funny one and most certainly the Lynn of the group is no stranger to her share of man drama but also career drama onset of the musical; Get Out, The Musical. She is also the creative, artistic one… could you say Lyn any louder.
There is an equity amongst these women, each one’s story just as pertinent despite Camille being a lead character; each one is going through their share of drama that lends weight to the narrative and endears them to us for good or ill, depending on their shenanigans.
The juxtaposition of the musical within the series is something quite incredible because it is art within art that does not take away from the wider narrative, rather it contributes to it. It includes the everyday micro aggressions suffered by Black women at work and a mirror of the society that downplays her vulnerability when put against a white woman… even within our own. The reaction of the director to a situation that highlights white fragility in the face of Black trauma but also questions the ways in which Black men fail to rally for Black women. I fell in love with Shandai in these moments, what a performer.
Tye is easily my favourite character; flawed and fabulous, she invites us into the struggle of a queer Black woman be it at work, at play or in the more serious issues of health when her concerns are reduced or misdiagnosed. Again, Harlem holds a mirror up to a world that easily and all too frequently dismisses Black woman’s pain and suffering. These moments pull the narrative all together, it easily translates to screen what the media especially struggles to elucidate or refuses to. Potato-Potatoe. Tye’s relationship with a White woman, she who founded an app for queer Black folk, is another strand in the narrative. The show levies great weight into exploring and explaining for the viewers in the back who just won’t get it. Does this make Tye a bigger hypocrite?
Harlem is tells the story of what it means to be a Black woman in this world; all those red tapes and higher barriers that society, and often times we, set ourselves. But it also shows the frivolity and the fun; something rarely seen in the media. Friendships, love, life, complications… shot against the backdrop of historically Black neighbourhoods falling at the hands of gentrification, Black girl magic and the other side of that. Black women trying to thrive in a society that tries to tell them they are less than. It pictures Harlem a historically Black neighbourhood going through an erasure, it shows us just how important Black hair stylists are to maintaining our connections to the culture, it juxtaposes the fight between trying to succeed appropriately and principled; it’s a very fine line when you are weighing up your self-interest, peace of mind and the feelings of the wider society. Even the set is definitely for us; a rich and delicious colour palette that celebrates our skin tone; pinks and yellows, against deep teals and rich tans, everything about this is to elevate and entice.
Harlem is a definite must watch; light and fun and funny, friendships and a comradery that is important not only in these women’s lives but in the community as well. I cannot wait for season 2.