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'Black Twitter' docuseries celebrates the online community with real-world impact

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. No doubt, at least one of these hashtags is familiar to you - #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackGirlMagic, #ICantBreathe. All of them took hold on the platform formerly known as Twitter, and to put a finer point on it, Black Twitter. Now, what exactly is Black Twitter?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There was a tweet at one point where they were like, where is Black Twitter? Like, is it, like - they thought it was, like, a secret URL and we had different logins, and, like - or is it a location?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is it black.twitter.com? Like, is there a special tweet I send which opens a portal for us muggles to get into the special club?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There's not an extra tab or there's not an email that you get where you want to sign up. It's just sort of there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And what you discover very quickly within the world of Black Twitter is that all of these combined regions, mentalities, political views, everything is sandwiched into one place.

MOSLEY: That's from the Hulu three-part documentary series "Black Twitter: A People's History," which charts the voices and movements that made this element of Twitter an influential force in American politics and culture. Our guest today is Prentice Penny, the director and executive producer of the series, which is released tomorrow. Penny based his docuseries on Jason Parham's 2021 articles about Black Twitter that were published in Wired magazine. Penny also served for all five seasons as the showrunner for HBO's "Insecure" with Isaa Rae. He grew up in Los Angeles and has had a long career in Hollywood on television shows like "Girlfriends," "Scrubs" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," where he served as both a writer and co-executive producer. And in 2020, he directed his first feature film for Netflix called "Uncorked." "Black Twitter" is his first documentary. Prentice Penny, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PRENTICE PENNY: Thank you, happy to be here.

MOSLEY: OK, so let's start with the big question, the main question. Every conversation about Black Twitter is really often a debate about what it is and actually who is a part of it. So how do you define Black Twitter?

PENNY: I define Black Twitter - the best way I can describe it is, it's like the back of the bus when you were in school. It's the...

MOSLEY: Yeah. And what was that like?

PENNY: You know, it's just people cutting up, having fun. No one is above being joked on. Things can get - you can debate - you can be bagging on each other. You could be debating your top five hip-hop artists. You could be talking about something kind of serious.

MOSLEY: All right.

PENNY: It's all of those things, and it's just the sort of the conversation that's kind of that the teacher's not hearing, too, right? So I think that's kind of the best way I would describe it.

MOSLEY: Oh, the conversation, yeah, that the teacher's not hearing, 'cause for a long time, it was a space that was all its own on Twitter. So it wasn't part of the mainstream conversation. You're taking it all the way back to its beginnings.

PENNY: Yeah, it's a bizarre thing to - you know, so much of Black culture, typically, you know, going back to our arrival in this country, is we've had the - obviously codes, which we've had to, you know, put the subtext in the text, you know, even in terms of the way slaves had to communicate. We had to say things and put things in songs that you know, we didn't want the sort of the other powers that be to understand what we were talking about, right? So it's a really bizarre thing that to have - to be discussing things that are so communal in a very public platform. But that's just how we move. And that's sort of what Black Twitter is. It's like, if you can kind of - you know, oh, I need to go in here, right? That was kind of the way that - it's like you have to know certain - again, what the sort of hashtags were, what the sort of conversation points were to kind of - so that was kind of your entryway into, oh, now I'm around kind of the energy of Black Twitter.

MOSLEY: I love that analogy of it - of Black Twitter being, like, the back of the bus, but what makes it, like, different from other online spaces like Facebook?

PENNY: Yeah, I think what made - you know, Twitter as a platform didn't really know what it was trying to be. It was like, it's a podcasting place. It's also like a messaging place. It's also...

MOSLEY: Right. We had no idea what it was...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...If we go back to that time period.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: But also, Twitter as a platform, the - all the people who created it didn't really know what it should be - you know, very different than Facebook, right? Facebook was very clear of what it was trying to be. And I think what - because Twitter was so pliable, it allowed it to be a lot of different things. And I think Black culture is very good in America of having to make something out of nothing. And we're very good at repurposing and remixing things in different ways, right? You see that in our food, you see it in our fashion and you certainly see it in the birth of hip-hop, right, which is like taking James Brown records, taking all these things and, like, rapping, like, over the break beats, right?

So we're always taking something and remixing it and repurposing it in different ways. And I think, you know, Twitter, also, which I think was unique about the platform was, you know, Facebook was follow your friends, right? It was like, your aunt, your friend from high school you hadn't seen in a long time, your cousin, all that type of stuff, you know. Whereas Twitter was like, come meet strangers.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: So that allows you to intermix with people you didn't necessarily know and grow a group and find a community, less than find a person. So if you were, like, NBA Twitter person, you could meet a bunch of people that were just - who messed with the NBA or you went to HBCUs or all these things. So they kind of started to build communities as a family differently than Facebook, which is like you literally can...

MOSLEY: With your family.

PENNY: ...With your family. Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah. You know, there's something that Associate Professor Meredith Clark said in your documentary about the term Black community that I thought was really enlightening when I'm trying to wrap my head around...

PENNY: Sure.

MOSLEY: ...What Black Twitter is. So she said, for so long, when we used the term Black community, we're using it to describe Black life to non-Black audiences. But then we assigned it back to ourselves. And with that, then, Black Twitter is like a mirror to us. It is definitely showing all the facets of Black life, not just one particular idea of what Black life is. We were essentially able to see each other.

PENNY: Yeah. And I think what's interesting even now is I think we still wrestle with that - right? - of, like, what is authentically Black? What - who gets to decide who's saying what about the community because we're so protective of it, right? And I think you know, we still wrestle with that certainly externally, right? We don't want to be seen as a monolith. But then there's also this weird thing we do, also, which is like, well, why don't we all think the same about this subject matter (laughter), right?

MOSLEY: And so the story is chronological. You started with 2006, 2007, and the creation of hashtags.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: How did hashtags become really, like, a beacon for Black Twitter?

PENNY: Yeah, I mean, it was a way on the platform to sort of find things quickly. If you put this on there, you can find these quickly.

MOSLEY: Right.

PENNY: And we use it as a different way - one, to sort of have a beacon to be like - there was a way to find us kind of - that's what I mean by, like, the ways into Black Twitter that were kind of, how you find it.

MOSLEY: Right.

PENNY: Well, you have to find it by knowing the words to get you in. It's almost like going to a speakeasy.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: It's like, you got to know the secret word for the night to get in, right?

MOSLEY: And that - one of the phrases that started it off, that kicked it off was #UKnowUrBlackWhen.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: So that illuminated something pretty profound. I think it - was it Ashley Weatherspoon?

PENNY: Yep.

MOSLEY: She's the person who created that hashtag...

PENNY: Yup.

MOSLEY: ...#UKnowUrBlackWhen. And people just started sharing their lived experiences, which actually made me wonder, have I ever had a unique experience in my life...

PENNY: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: ...When I saw that. Because what it did, though, was open it up that you saw these...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Little minute minutia things that are in your day-to-day life...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Other Black people are also experiencing, too.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Did you have that experience, too?

PENNY: Oh, for sure. I mean, I remember when that hashtag hit, and it's always funny when those types of things come up, and there's ways in which - the best one to me is like - there's the ones that are like, of course, like, the plastic on the couch or don't go into the nice living room and stuff like that. But, you know, then there's, like, stuff that's even more specific, which is like, the cookie tin, that Danish cookie tin...

MOSLEY: Right.

PENNY: ...Where all the sewing stuff is in.

MOSLEY: Silverware that your grandma used to - yeah.

PENNY: The silverware, like - the packet drawer, that sort of, like, you know...

MOSLEY: The condiment packet drawer, yeah

PENNY: The bedroom set, the condiment - so there are all these sort of things that, again, we - and I think it's because - I mean, we can get into historically why we have so many similar experiences. But I just think it's because we're Black in America, and, you know, we all kind of have a similar starting point. Black culture - because we all started from our ancestry - at least Black Americans, our ancestry being slavery - we all have a similar starting point. Now, we might have, in the Great Migration, stayed or gone.

MOSLEY: (Inaudible).

PENNY: But the starting point of certain things are the same - whereas the starting places for other cultures, at least in America, is not the same.

MOSLEY: Black Twitter - and Twitter more generally - is credited with spawning several cultural and social justice movements, as well as the demise of some careers. So you all talk about TV personality and chef Paula Deen, who, in 2013, posted a picture of her son in brown makeup as "I Love Lucy" character Ricky Ricardo. Black Twitter went in on her. What did that particular moment represent?

PENNY: I think - I remember that moment 'cause I remember every Black person at the time used to, like, mess with Paula Deen 'cause it was - like, she cooked with a bunch of butter.

MOSLEY: Messed with, meaning we liked her.

PENNY: Yeah. We liked her. Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: We, like - you know, she cooked food, like, you know, different than sort of, like, a lot of the white women chefs on TV, right? She was, like, a thicker white woman. She embraced butter. It was - she - it felt like she ate food-food - right? - not sort of, like...

MOSLEY: It was Southern.

PENNY: It was...

MOSLEY: Right.

PENNY: ...Southern.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: It was very much in that way. And I think that - so it felt like you could see yourself reflected in, like, the thing she talks about, at least food-wise and, you know, culturally. And that moment, I think, is so interesting because, you know, typically, Black culture, and I think, before social media - you might have those, like, kind of - outrage is the wrong thing, but frustration or anger...

MOSLEY: Yeah. Someone does something.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: And - right.

PENNY: And you're kind of saying it to your girl. You're saying it to your friend. But you're saying it in barbershops. You're saying in the - at work. You're saying it just when y'all going out for drinks. But it doesn't have a lot of resonance. Maybe somebody writes an article, and maybe...

MOSLEY: You share.

PENNY: You know.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: Yeah, and you share. But it also - the article also might just be in Essence magazine or it might be in a Black publication. So the mainstream world at large, typically out - so sort of, say, like, white America, isn't privy to how we feel about those things.

MOSLEY: And what you're saying is so important in that we're in a different time period...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Where there's more silos and more guardrails to prevent folks from seeing that bigger picture. But at the time when Twitter was really burgeoning...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...You were able to see those conversations being had. Black Lives Matter was a hashtag that originally started on Facebook but then took hold on Twitter. Take us back to that time period and how that hashtag - it really became a real-life social justice movement, the movement that we know today. Do you remember when you first interacted with it?

PENNY: You know, around Trayvon, Ferguson time.

MOSLEY: 2012, 2013.

PENNY: Yeah. So that was - yeah. So that was then. So, you know, it's tough when you're - especially when you're - I have kids, and I had kids then. I have two boys. So obviously, Trayvon hit in a totally different way. But I just remember seeing it everywhere...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: ...And certain groups of people being uncomfortable seeing it. And obviously, you see ways in which it got appropriated and misinterpreted and, you know, all kind of crazy stuff. It's always interesting to me whenever you see anything with the word Black in it in America because it's - even when we were talking about what the title of this doc is going to be - right? - it becomes like, OK, well, the second you put Black in something, is it turning off people because they're going to, like, hear it a way, see it a way? And obviously, Black Lives Matter as a hashtag did make people feel a way.

MOSLEY: Thinking back to that moment when Black Lives Matter as a hashtag took hold on Twitter, it also became a megaphone, especially for us to understand what was happening in other places throughout the country...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Like Ferguson.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: We know about Ferguson, and we know about Michael Brown because of that hashtag on Twitter. How did that inform the mainstream media coverage of that time period?

PENNY: Yeah. I mean, I think to that point - right? - like, you know, Johnetta Elzie, who was the first person to, you know, kind of be posting about it...

MOSLEY: About Ferguson. She went on a...

PENNY: About Ferguson.

MOSLEY: She flew there from where she was living - yep - to cover it.

PENNY: And talking about it. And again...

MOSLEY: And live-tweeting it.

PENNY: Yeah, and live tweeting everything that was happening. And I think, you know, obviously, you know, what was happening in Ferguson isn't the first time that's happening in this country, right? There's a lot of that. But I think what Twitter allowed, which is kind of like a - which we say in the doc - it's like a printing press in a TV studio on your phone, you know? So much of - even when I started film school - right? - like, in the '90s, you know, like, video didn't exist like that yet. Like, you had to shoot on film, process on film. So the process of doing anything visual like that is so expensive, right?

And so obviously, you know, Black people don't own a bunch of television stations. We don't own a bunch of news cameras. We don't own a bunch of these things. So the idea that the technology could - where finance is not a hurdle to tell a different narrative changes everything, right? So now what Johnetta Elzie is doing can get just as many views as what CNN is doing. That's so powerful.

MOSLEY: How did that hashtag make the media have to contend with the way that it was covering?

PENNY: I think it had to hold those institutions accountable of, what are we putting out there? I think what happened on Black Twitter was we got to decide what the narrative was. So if, then - if CNN or Fox or whatever is showing us, you know, overturning a car or doing this, we're also going to show, hey, we were cleaning up the next day. But they're not going to show that because that doesn't tell a - that doesn't tell the story they're excited about because, you know, we can get into all the minutiae that they sell ads and that they have a revenue stream that needs viewers, that they need viewership high, too, right? And so when your viewership needs to be high, you got to do whatever you got to do to grab viewers, right? And so when human beings are monetized, you're incentivized to do things that feel sensational and splashy and not do things that feel like, you know, human interest pieces or tell a different narrative, right? 'Cause...

MOSLEY: And those narratives - right? - you were able to see...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...On Twitter.

PENNY: Exactly.

MOSLEY: OK. Let's take a short break. We're going to talk more about this. If you're just joining us, our guest as Prentice Penny, director of the new Hulu documentary series "Black Twitter: A People's History," which delves into the social justice movements, the voices and the means that established Black Twitter as an influential force in American politics and culture. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET'S "STAY THE NIGHT")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to Prentice Penny, director and executive producer of the new documentary series "Black Twitter: A People's History," which is being released on Hulu tomorrow, based on Jason Parham's Wired series, "The People's History Of Black Twitter." Penny's documentary delves into the social justice movements, the voices and the memes that established Black Twitter as an influential force in American politics and culture.

Penny also served as the executive producer and showrunner of the HBO series "Insecure," which ran from 2016 to 2021. He's written for several TV shows, including "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "The Hustle" and "Scrubs." Prentice, I want to talk for a moment about the impact that Black Twitter has had on what we pay attention to collectively and also spend money on. so in this clip I'm about to play, Amanda Seales, Kamau Bell and Jemele Hill talk about how Black Twitter influenced television show ratings and content decisions. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACK TWITTER: A PEOPLE'S HISTORY")

AMANDA SEALES: Well, the reality is that Black people historically support what they like and tell everybody, so Black Twitter allowed for word-of-mouth marketing to happen with programming, which I think was something that nobody in marketing at NBC or ABC or CBS had ever considered as something they should be looking to do.

JEMELE HILL: We are creating a new era of Black media, and that has a lot to do with the connections that we made via Black Twitter.

W KAMAU BELL: Quinta Brunson's career is in large part because Black folks have sort of, like, decided, it's your turn; Issa Rae, you know, that, like, "Insecure" became, like, appointment television for Black folks.

SEALES: And so that is what keeps the over-indexing happening that makes a show blow up, because Black Twitter has also come to support it.

HILL: As people say on Black Twitter, like, we watching this as a family or not?

MOSLEY: That was a clip from the new Hulu documentary series "Black Twitter," directed by my guest today, Prentice Penny. I saw you smiling at certain parts of it. I mean, at its height, you were the showrunner for "Insecure," which is a show that Black Twitter loved and live-tweeted whenever it would drop...

PENNY: (Laughter) Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Analyzed and debated it, too. How did that space influence your work?

PENNY: Yeah. I mean, I think that's when I think I fell in love with Black Twitter in a totally different way. Up until that point, you know, I'd been working in television, and even if I was tweeting about a show I was on, I'm not the face of it or in the forefront of it like that, right? And "Insecure" was the first time that I was, obviously along with Issa. And so, you know, we're live-tweeting, 'cause obviously, that's what people were doing, and people would be responding. And at first, I would kind of give, like, a very nice, PC response. And somebody tweeted something. I don't remember what it was, but it, like, had some spice on it, and I was like, as I'm apt to do, what should I do? Should I respond how I would...

MOSLEY: Were you offended by what they were saying, or what was the spice?

PENNY: No. I don't remember what the spice was. It just was, like, something slick.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: You know, and I'm like - I'm quick with my tongue, too, you know? I'm a comedy writer. I can be petty. And it wasn't anything, like, out of bounds. It was just something real slick. And I was like, man, you know, if I was - when I was 16, I was obviously a huge Spike Lee fan. He's a huge inspiration for me and I was like, if I could have talked to Spike Lee and said something like - you know, how amazing would that have been, and what would I have wanted his response to me to be, right? And I was like, yeah, I could give those answers, or I could just be me on the platform.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: Because you're nervous. You're like, I don't want to offend; I don't want anybody to say the wrong thing.

MOSLEY: And the entire brand is on the line. Yeah.

PENNY: Of course, and it's also, like, not fully my show, either. It's Issa's. I don't want to do anything to damage...

MOSLEY: Issa's reputation.

PENNY: ...What she's built, Issa's reputation and what the show is doing, but then I was also like, yeah, but I'm a part of Black Twitter, too, and I'm funny and slick, and so let me respond that way, too - like, again, funny, not out of bounds, just funny and slick. They just started laughing, I mean, doing, like, laugh emojis or whatever, and they was like, oh, I like that, or whatever, and that's when I also recognized that they want the smoke, too, back. Then I started to realize they liked that.

MOSLEY: Right.

PENNY: 'Cause I was like, I like that. I mean, again, going back even in...

MOSLEY: How much of a gift was that for you as a creator? Because I mean, prior to that instant feedback, I mean, you're just getting feedback from ratings, you know, before.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Like, this is real - and, you know, focus groups, but this is, like, real feedback that allows you to understand what is really hitting.

PENNY: Yeah, and I think - and really, it's different. You know, it's like, you get those things when you're out in the world and people go like - they know who you are, and they might go like, oh, I love the show, blah, blah, blah. But this was like, even though we were writing the show and we know what's happening, we're kind of watching it for the first time, too.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Prentice Penny, director of the new Hulu documentary series "Black Twitter." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD'S "SUGAH DADDY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And our guest today is Prentice Penny, director and executive producer of the new Hulu docuseries "Black Twitter: A People's History," which drops tomorrow. Penny also served as the executive producer and showrunner of the HBO series "Insecure," which ran from 2016 to 2021. Penny produced his first feature film for Netflix, called "Uncorked," in 2020, about a man who aspires to be a sommelier. Penny also served as the creator and host of the lifestyle series "Upscale with Prentice Penny." He's written for several television shows, including "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "The Hustle" and "Scrubs." I want to talk a little bit more about your career before this documentary.

PENNY: Sure.

MOSLEY: So you were the showrunner of HBO's "Insecure"...

PENNY: Yep.

MOSLEY: ...With Issa Rae. And there's this really cool story about how you got on the show. You basically wrote her.

PENNY: Yes. I wrote her a letter. My agent at the time had - went to college with Issa. So - and Lena Waithe, who...

MOSLEY: ...Is another creative, a writer...

PENNY: ...Is another creator, yup, who created "The Chi," and wrote "Queen And Slim," was friends with Issa. And so I worked with Lena Waithe when she was an assistant on "Girlfriends," the TV show that - where I was...

MOSLEY: Where you were a writer.

PENNY: ...Where I was a writer. And so I kind of had a few ways into meeting or connecting with her. And so my agent was like, you should write her a letter about why you - about what you connected with on it and why you think you'd be a good showrunner, and I did. And she read the letter and was like, we should meet. And so we met - she had a book coming out and she was at Eso Won Books, which is a bookstore that's no longer in Leimert Park, sadly. And...

MOSLEY: In California, Los Angeles.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: And we met and in 15 minutes, we were, like - we just - you know, you just have chemistry with people.

MOSLEY: What did you see in her vision that spoke to you?

PENNY: There were lots of things that I connected with. One, I connected with that the character was from the very neighborhood I grew up in. Like, when Issa and I met, we realized that we grew up a block over from each other. So I knew the Leimert Park...

MOSLEY: But you didn't know each other.

PENNY: But we didn't know each other because, like, we're 10 years apart agewise. So - but I knew her brother, and we, you know, just knew all the same things in the same neighborhood, you know, And then I knew what it was like to feel obviously super awkward and obviously knowing it was like to be insecure. I was - I'm currently married and married to an AKA, like the character Molly is...

MOSLEY: Sorority, yeah, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

PENNY: ...In the sorority - Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority that Molly is. So I was kind of married to a Molly. And I had worked at a nonprofit before I was a writer. So there were just lots of things I connected with. And I just - I had had an experience even recently, obviously, at that time, when I was working on shows like "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Happy Endings" and "Scrubs" where I was the only Black writer in the room. So I understood that feeling of what Issa the character feels like working at the nonprofit We Got Y'all, where she's the only Black person at the nonprofit. So I had had a - and even down to - in the pilot, there's a character that asked Issa the character, what does on fleek mean? And that had happened to me, like, a month prior.

MOSLEY: Someone had asked you, really (ph), what was on fleek?

PENNY: Someone had asked me what was on fleek when I was on a show. And so even down to that, I was just like - and so I just felt I knew the world. I knew - I just felt - I just connected with it. I just knew it.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: And we just connected kind of immediately. Not even really talking about the show. We just were making each other laugh the moments we met each other, and it was just like, yeah, that 15 minutes changed our life.

MOSLEY: It makes sense why also - I mean, we know because we knew from Issa how important LA was to her. But then this bit of information, I mean, it was just an infusion from collective knowledge.

PENNY: Yeah, I mean, again, not to keep bringing up Spike Lee. I'm sure Spike Lee will hear this and be like, man, this dude really is infatuated with me.

MOSLEY: You haven't - have you all met each other yet?

PENNY: No, I've never met Spike.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: But, you know, Issa and I always talked about in the show, that, you know, obviously on HBO, there was a TV show called "Entourage" that talked about, obviously, the life of being, you know, a movie star and going around Beverly Hills and Malibu and Hollywood. But we felt like, you never really see Black - a different Black LA. It's either going to be the hood or you see Santa Monica, the beaches. You never see kind of the beauty of the Black LA that we grew up with, right? And so we were like - we wanted to do that in the same way that we felt like Woody Allen and Spike Lee had done for New York and Scorsese. We were like, how do we do that for our LA, right? And so that was really, again, a love letter to LA, too, to talk about that beauty, of LA that isn't just always, you know, beaches and the Hollywood Hills.

MOSLEY: I want to play a clip from the first season of "Insecure," and in it, Issa is doing one of her famous in-the-mirror raps to herself.

PENNY: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

ISSA RAE: (As Issa, rapping) Do you want your man or not? Do you know your plans or not? You gon' go back home or not? You gon' claim your throne or not? Is you Khaleesi or that other [expletive]'s name I don't remember?

MOSLEY: That was Issa Rae in Episode 2 of Season 1 of...

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...HBO's "Insecure," which our guest today, Prentice Penny, was a showrunner for. And you would actually direct her.

PENNY: Mmm hmmm.

MOSLEY: Through the mirror.

PENNY: Well, sometimes through the mirror, sometimes, like, just outside of it. Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: So we would be - there was always, like, kind of, like, a two-way mirror. There was a hole in the wall, and that's where the mirror was. And sometimes so we could pull the mirror out or put the camera in, so when she's looking right to camera, like, it's like, it's the mirror. And so...

MOSLEY: You would help her with her freestyle. What kind of stuff would you, like, kind of push or pull or...

PENNY: Well, I didn't help with the raps. The raps were all her. I let the raps be.

MOSLEY: Oh, OK.

PENNY: But all of the, like, improv comedy stuff of, like, when she's like, talking to the mirror, like in the pilot, when she's doing, like, all the lipsticks, mic montage or even when she's like, about to go home to Lawrence - I think it's Episode 3, and she's like - she's having an argument with herself, kind of predicting what her man is going to say. Like, all of that stuff, we would just be - we had what was on the script, and then I would just be throwing her stuff, and she'd be throwing stuff, too, but we just - it was just fun 'cause it was just like, whatever we came up with in the moment.

MOSLEY: OK, I want to play another clip from the last episode of Season 5 of "Insecure." And in this clip, Issa talks to Lawrence, her on-again-off-again boyfriend. And she's talking about what's been holding her back in life. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSECURE")

RAE: (As Issa) I keep thinking about all it took to get here - you know? - doubting myself, going back and forth about what I wanted, being scared to waste my time and look stupid in case none of it worked out. And then I realized that it was all in my head. You know, no one was doubting me except for me - and Kelly and sometimes Ahmal, too, but I had to believe that it would work out for it to work.

MOSLEY: That was a clip from the last season of "Insecure," starring Issa Rae, where her character is talking with Lawrence about what's been holding her back in life as she moves to the next chapter in her life.

PENNY: That scene was interesting. Typically, Issa and I would meet before a season would start, and we'd talk about, like, what is the theme of this season, right? We'd say, OK, well, we're building a house; this season has to build on the brick of the previous brick, right? And when we started Season 5, it was the first time Issa and I didn't necessarily agree on if she should be with Lawrence or not. It was the first time that I saw Issa the person have to go on her own journey to finally end up with Issa the character, so we sat down, and I was like - we were talking about should she end up with Lawrence, and we were kind of not sure, and I was like, I think she should. You know, it feels like that's who her soulmate is.

And she was like, I just feel like Issa would be a dumb chick, staying with this guy; I just think it's dumb. And I was like - then I said, well, why is it dumb? And I think because of our age difference, you know, I was like, well, you know, sometimes in life, the things you want don't come to you exactly how you want, but if you want them overall, that supersedes the way it specifically has to look. And she was like, I just think it's stupid. There's all these guys out here in LA. Why does she have to be with him? And so then she was like, I don't think I want her to be with him.

And so throughout the season, though, as we kept writing the season and she would be in little scene moments with Jay in this, by the end, she got around to being like, yeah, life isn't always like that. It doesn't always match - it doesn't always look like the picture, but if you get what you want from it, is that OK? And that's kind of what she eventually got to, so it was the first time the character and the person went on the same - 'cause usually, Issa the person as a writer is ahead of the character. She's just like, I'm not...

MOSLEY: Right. She's already forecasting.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: She knows. Yeah.

PENNY: But this was the first time that both of them went on the same journey. And I remember when she was like, yeah, I think they should be together, and I was like, wow, OK, and so then we just wrote to that, but yeah. It was a - so it's interesting hearing that scene. It's like we would - Issa the person was saying similar things in this season just about her and the character.

MOSLEY: That is so interesting. Thank you for that backstory.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: And those who are super fans of "Insecure" are going to love hearing that little bit of detail, because that whole speech, for me, it really encapsulated the energy that is Issa Rae.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: What she's saying there is her whole ethos. It's what she talks about throughout life in every interview.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: And I'm also wondering how much of it is you, too, you all being so similar - I mean, having this sense of self and, like, I'm coming into who I am and, like, standing really strong in it.

PENNY: Yeah, I think I'm there - I mean, look, we all have our insecurities, and that never, you know, leaves us, but the one thing we talked about in the show, and this is where I do feel like Issa and I are at as people - you know, she got there 10 years or so before me, but I think the character in the beginning of the show was always, like, wanting to get rid of her insecurities, right? I'm going to be - she'd always be trying to reinvent herself. This season, I'm new, this me, this...

MOSLEY: Which is kind of human.

PENNY: Which is so human, right? But what we said, the arc of the character has to learn to be I'm never going to get rid of them, so I have to learn how to be secure in my insecurities. No, that's a part of me, and it's a part of me that sometimes may rear its head more than others, but it's not anything I'm ever going to fully shake. I'm just going to get better at actually dealing with the root of it.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, our guest today is Prentice Penny, director of the new Hulu documentary "Black Twitter: A People's History," which delves into the social justice movements, the voices and the memes that established Black Twitter as an influential force in American politics and culture. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today, we're talking to Prentice Penny, director of the new Hulu documentary series "Black Twitter: A People's History," which is based on Jason Parham's Wired series "The People's History Of Black Twitter." Penny's documentary delves into the social justice movements, the voices and the memes that established Black Twitter as an influential force in both American politics and culture. Penny also served as the executive producer and showrunner of the HBO series "Insecure."

You grew up in Los Angeles.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: You grew up - Hollywood was right there. What did Hollywood mean to you as a kid?

PENNY: Oh, it might as well - I might as well have grown up in Alaska, to compare it. I didn't know anybody in the business. I didn't know any - you know, this is - you've got to remember this is, you know, pre-internet. You had to go to the library to learn about stuff.

MOSLEY: When did you start to conceptualize this was who you might be, where you might fit in?

PENNY: I'll never forget. It was - I was in high school. It was - I was 15, and I was telling people I want to make movies and stuff like that. And I'll never forget - God bless Stacy Pyles (ph) from my high school. So there was - you know, when you go to the counselor board that's, like, outside the counselor's office - they've got a corkboard or have, like, pull this off. It's, like, a college thing, and it's like...

MOSLEY: Oh, yes, like, to go to something.

PENNY: Yeah, to go to stuff, and apparently, my school had something where USC had a summer...

MOSLEY: University of Southern California.

PENNY: University of Southern California had a summer workshop for high school students that were interested in studying film.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PENNY: And she took it off, and I remember she came down the hallway, and she was like, here, I saw this on the board. And it was like somebody giving me, like, I don't know, the Ark of the Covenant. It was like, (vocalizing). It was like - I was like, what is this? So I just, like, begged my mom to, like, please sign me up for this, please, please, please. And I went to the summer workshop. It was 1990, and I stayed on campus for two weeks, and you're, like, learning how to write scripts, and you're...

MOSLEY: Life-changing.

PENNY: It was - I left there being like, this is all I want to do for the rest of my life.

MOSLEY: Your dad owned a furniture business...

PENNY: Yes, he did.

MOSLEY: ...That was started by your grandfather.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: And your mother, Brenda Penny, is a Superior Court judge.

PENNY: Yes, she is.

MOSLEY: Those are some pretty hefty careers.

PENNY: Yes.

MOSLEY: Did you ever consider following in either one of their footsteps?

PENNY: No. (Laughter) No. You know, the - it's interesting. My father's side is much more entrepreneurial. They're from Oklahoma. On my dad's side, his mother was one of 11. So one would come out here from Oklahoma, open up a tire shop. One would come out here, work for him, open up another tire shop. And that's just kind of how that family did it, right? My mom's side is from Chicago. They're much more formally educated - like, secondary degrees.

But what I learned from both was that you got to know - you got to have the formal degrees. You got to be able to move in that space. But then you got to know how to hustle. You got to know how to make a dollar when you got to make a dollar, right? You got to know - and being a salesman, I think, has really helped me because when I am pitching something or working on something - I've watched my father have to sell. And you get to see how somebody responds to somebody else's response.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Prentice Penny, the director of the Hulu docuseries "Black Twitter: A People's History."

All right, Prentice. So there has been an exodus of Twitter, and people are going to other platforms. What is lost if Black Twitter ceases to exist? And how do you envision it maybe even presenting itself elsewhere? Is it a moment in time that is gone forever, or does it live on in another iteration, another space that we can't even think of yet?

PENNY: It's interesting. Like, the numbers are down, but we're still on the platform in numbers. But I like to think of it as, like - and we get to this point in the doc, where it's like, the power was never in the platform. The power of all of this has always been us. The energy of Black Twitter, to me, is the most important thing - right? - which is the energy of holding things accountable, moving unapologetically. I think about, like, my kids specifically. Like, my kids are 16, and I have 14-year-old twins. And they've never been on Twitter or X. They're...

MOSLEY: They're on other platforms, and they don't see that as a voice or a place that they would even be on.

PENNY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: It's evolved into other places.

PENNY: A hundred percent. But they're, like, you know - they're TikTok kids, but they're growing up - I call them, like, the grandkids of Black Twitter because they're growing up where, like, Black Lives Matter isn't a weird thing in - they've just always heard it. They've always heard Black girl magic. They've always seen protests mobilize on this thing. So they're never going to be on the Black Twitter that we grew up in, but they're the beneficiaries of the energy of Black Twitter, right? So I'm curious how my grandkids will move. They're never going to know it, but they're going to be thinking and moving the way Black Twitter thinks and moves. Black Twitter is, like, past a platform anymore. Elon can own the space. We run it. But our energy is, like - it's almost unplugged now. It's, like, just in the universe.

MOSLEY: In the ether.

PENNY: Yeah. It's in the ether.

MOSLEY: Prentice Penny, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

PENNY: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Prentice Penny is the director of the new Hulu docuseries called "Black Twitter: A People's History."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews a new mystery series called "Shardlake." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY AMADIE'S "YOU'D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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