When we finally meet, Zazie Beetz and I are both in awe. Beetz is transfixed by the simple yet colorful office lunchroom decor at Manhattan’s Café Henrie, and I by her current hair situation. She has two cornrows peeking out from under her black headwrap, held together by two silver Tibetan hairsticks with dangling charms at the end that she picked up at ABC Home & Carpet.
On Atlanta, Beetz’s hair has become a topic of conversation too, receiving praise for the show’s realistic depiction of an important part of the black women’s hair routine that is rarely seen on screen: the headscarf. In the first episode, we meet Vanessa Keefer (Beetz) in bed with her hair wrapped, and in the next scene she’s in the bathroom undoing her bantu knots to free her afro and get ready for work. It’s a brief moment, but it’s something the show’s creator Donald Glover insisted on including—and something Beetz, along with many other black women, can relate to.
“It’s so funny, with my boyfriend every night it’s like a ritual. He’ll go to sleep and I’ll stay up for another 30 minutes to braid my hair and then go to sleep,” Beetz said. “It’s the culture of black hair, whether it’s natural or straightened or whatever, there is this ritual that happens that I don’t think necessarily happens in other cultures.”
Vanessa (“Van”) is a grade-school teacher, a single mom, and the main character Earn’s (Donald Glover) on-again, off-again girlfriend—who he sometimes lives with because he’s technically homeless. Aside from Van’s mane and her daughter Lotte, there is nothing particularly perfect about her life; not her job, not her bank account, not her relationship. She’s in her 20s, lost, but figuring it out. Her character feels refreshingly authentic in the age of television where a majority of the black women have their shit together.
In the last five years, characters like Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, Cookie Lyon and Mary Jane Paul have established a solid, unwavering place for black women on television. These characters are the ones viewers aspire to be. To be that put together, that ruthless, that lavish, that fly, that in control, that successful, that lucky. The flaws of these complex characters are often exposed, giving them depth. But the stakes are foreign, as the shows rarely engage in the everyday life of the normal black girl. Unlike Olivia Pope, the country won’t be in jeopardy no matter how many terrible men we sleep with, and unlike Mary Jane Paul, the vast majority of us can’t afford to freeze our eggs for the future. The growingly diverse television world still lacks representation in the types of black women it portrays, especially in regards to class.
Where are the black girls who are broke, but not constantly in a slump about it? Where are the black girls who are just figuring it out? The black girls who do dumb things and can’t Olivia Pope their way out of the situation? The black girls who probably have chipped nail polish under their closed-toed shoes? The black girls who don’t have the pick of the world’s wealthiest men to date? The black girls who are perfectly ordinary?
Zazie Beetz is helping to expand the perspective with her role on on FX’s Atlanta.
The 25-year-old half-German, half-black actress is a native New Yorker who grew up in Harlem and Washington Heights. She started acting in community theater when she was seven and continued her journey at the renowned performing arts school LaGuardia High School, where the movie Fame was shot and notable alumni include Sarah Paulson, Nicki Minaj, and Omar Epps. She studied French at Skidmore College, and got an agent for acting just two years ago.
Beetz has landed roles in indie movies, most recently Wolves, a coming-of-age film in which she plays the main character’s girlfriend Victoria. She also appears in Netflix’s relationship anthology series Easy. Atlanta–an audition she was sure she bombed—is her biggest role yet.
To get better acquainted with the character Van and the realities of being a young single mother, Beetz looked to two women in her life: her mom, who conceived Beetz when she was only 22, and her childhood friend’s mother, a teacher who had her first child at 23.
“I talked to her about her experience raising her daughter while living in the projects,” Beetz said. “She wasn’t doing drugs, she wasn’t drinking, she was by herself doing this. She talked about how sometimes now she does wish she could have had that, going on spring break or hanging out with her friends, but she just didn’t. And for that, she has other experiences.”
Atlanta is breaking ground in television for its ability to portray everyday blackness without feeling the need for grandiose statements about what that means. It allows the characters to just be, and most of the time, they’re in limbo. Some haven’t quite made it to where they want to be in life, while others are perfectly happy.
“They’re working and they’re fighting and they’re smart….and black and poor,” Beetz told me. “And I don’t think you see that without some sort of tearful struggle. They’re just living their life. It’s not about them being poor, it’s just about them living day-to-day. It’s sort of slow and in the moment and I like that. I always think of Louie, but what I like about that show and also what I like about Atlanta is within its funniness, exists not sadness, but quietness, which feels very real to me.”
In the third episode “Go for Broke,” Van and Earn are in bed after a lover’s quarrel about Earn’s responsibilities as a father. The argument ends with Earn jokingly calling her a stereotypical angry black woman. Van claps back, telling him that if she’s a stereotype then he’s definitely one: he’s broke, black, and he can’t take care of his child. But while Earn, a Princeton dropout with plans, might not be able to provide for his daughter financially, emotionally he is all there as a father. That’s the thing about Atlanta—no character on the show is just a stereotype.
“There’s this display of all different kinds of black people, and also showing that all these different kinds of black people also have humanity underneath or a full-rounded personality underneath what you think of their initial stereotype,” said Beetz.
Van doesn’t have it all together either, but she is essentially the glue that holds together Earn and her daughter—her family. It’s why you don’t see her engaging in the same aimless shenanigans as him. She jokes around and she’s young, but there’s a certain seriousness and take-no-bullshit energy to her character. She has to pay rent. She has to care for her daughter. She has to bail Earn out of jail.
And when she does indulge in just a little bit of fun, the consequences are detrimental. In the episode “Value,” Van smokes weed with a friend from high school the day before she had a drug test and ends up losing her job. (Even though she nearly stopped it through a scheme that involved extracting pee from her daughter’s diapers, pouring it in a condom, and taping it onto her leg. It burst, obviously.)
“I don’t think that Van harbors unrealistic expectations, which allows room for both deserving anger and also being understanding,” said Beetz. “She’s not asking Earn for special shit. She’s asking him to contribute. Then he can chill. Like any parent should. Feed your kid. Then make music.”
While Earn is committed to making it in his career, he struggles to commit to being a full-time father. Still, his relationship with Van is heartfelt. It’s clear that the saving grace in all this is their friendship.
“Sometimes Van falters and wonders whether she is ignoring her better judgment. But I think she also recognizes that he makes her feel good, too. He makes her laugh. He’s intelligent. His potential is so very much there. It’s why they were initially interested in one another. She loves him. He loves her, whether or not he can say it. But he does,” Beetz said. “And now the universe has offered them this child, a very clear sign that maybe they should at least try to flow with the same wave, and I do not fault Van for genuinely trying to attempt that.”
Van’s internal doubts about her relationship with Earn get called out when her childhood friend Jade, who basically dates NBA players for a living, questions if Van even knows her worth as a woman, especially if she’s still putting up with Earn.
“Van worries that she may be settling. Superficial signs point to that, I suppose. His lack of interest or support, that she has to curate fatherhood for him. That is all very unsettling. And having those feelings validated by outside sources is upsetting,” Beetz said. “But I think that it is important to emphasize that judgment from an outside source does not inform what is actually happening inside of a relationship. I suppose that is a classic trope. No one knows what is actually happening in any marriage. It can go the other way around, as well.”
But Beetz promises that by the end of the season viewers will see the unconventional couple choose each other and love—she’s rooting for them, because he’s the only one who actually gets her and she’s the only one who gets him. While the viewers might not exactly be rooting for Van’s tumultuous relationship to flourish, we are rooting for more imperfectly perfect black female characters like her. “Van allows room for women to not apologize, particularly black women, for who they are. And what they need,” she said.