In a recent interview with Mic, Ernest Dickerson, the cinematographer for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and Insecure’s director of photography, Ava Berkofsky, broke down how they worked to feature black faces on screen.
“The main thing you had to worry about is the reflectivity of African-American skin,” Dickerson told Mic’s Xavier Harding. “I always made sure that the makeup artists I worked with put a moisturizer on black skin so that we [got] some reflections in there.”
Berkofsky, who was brought on for the series’ second season to give things a more cinematic feel, revealed that she wants every scene to “look like a painting,” according to Harding. In order to do that, Berkofsky uses a special lighting technique involving a “light dab of shiny makeup” and a “white or [canvas-like] muslin” board that reflects light off the actors’ skin instead of directly lighting it. “[In sitcoms], everything is the same level of brightness,” she added. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”
In “Hella Perspective,” it isn’t necessarily (or entirely) the lighting, but the actual framing of Insecure’s leads, that helps deliver the kind of careful attention Berkofsky and Dickerson seek in their centering of black people on screen.
In this extended, 42-minute episode, the audience and characters are dragged through the same 30 days, three times over, from three different perspectives. Within that chaptered approach, the camera delivers striking low angle and high angle shots, playing with the audience’s interpretation of everything from a character’s innocence and ignorance to degrees of confidence and importance. It’s all then mashed between a series of calculated shots and cuts, including point-of-view shots and smash cuts.
The result? A not-so-subtle nod to who we’re focused on and, more importantly, how. It’s a stylistic move that helps Insecure avoid delivering the “same level of brightness” for each of its characters in their final moments of the second season. Something as complicated as pivoting between storylines across the same amount of time, or as (seemingly) simple as bringing the camera up on characters slowly before leveling out, is an intentional method of reflection that forces us to see theInsecure crew differently.
It’s there during Molly’s realization that the white male partners of the law firm she works for aren’t going to get perspective on her value, or that Issa’s lack of perspective on the high school led to her own version of inter-community discrimination. You then see it as the camera’s frame of focus flickers rapidly between the faces of Kelli, Molly and Issa while they hash out the pros and cons of working in predominantly white versus predominantly black spaces and as the camera noticeably shifts focus between Aparna and Lawrence in his car as they bicker over what kinds of relationships—and with whom—are acceptable to maintain. It is also there in the overlapping moments of interaction, altered by a character’s time with and distance to said interaction. That includes Issa’s response to a photo of Molly’s latest love interest versus Lawrence’s (jealous) interpretation of Issa’s response.
Through those multiple storylines, those shifting angles and changes in focus, we see Insecure handle character development in a new, significantly more nuanced way. In a way we rarely have a relationship with the screen, at least on a conscious level. In a way we rarely see black people on screen.
The decision to make perspective not just a verbal experience, but also a visual one, only enhances the series’ other strong elements. Each of Season Two’s episodes has functioned as a self-contained thematic exploration, but “Hella Perspective” serves as the final and defining thread that ties them together. Whether we’ve been talking about the problems of the white liberal savior complex or open relationships, “Hella Perspective” lets us know that Insecure’s sophomore run has always been about perspective: who has it, who doesn’t, whose we’re getting and whose we’re not.
Season One asked us about what we want and what we’re willing to do or put up with to get or keep it. Season Two is a concentrated effort to respond to that. How does being in our own heads lead us to the places we land or make us forget what we have? How does it lead to ended relationships, new jobs, enduring friendships? To lies, love, laughter? How can getting outside of our own heads change this? The entire second and certainly stronger creative go was about the ways we get perspective after we’ve lost it.
When you’re so caught up in your own life, in being and doing you, like most people and most of Insecure’s characters are, it’s really easy to never move beyond your own line of sight. In a narrative universe where all the moving parts aren’t just so intertwined, but where storytellers are dedicated to fully delivering on storylines for so many of those said moving parts, it’s especially easy to lose perspective. Season Two and “Hella Perspective” were about figuring out how to manage doing that.
The episode, for that catchy and creative endeavor, may not have dramatically delivered in every way we wanted it to. Despite its extended run, the juggling of so many perspectives left a lot of perspective out, and somewhat undermined its larger purpose. After all of Molly’s shaking and moving, why didn’t we see whether she would stay at her firm or leave it? Why did we not see more of Lawrence’s relationship with Aparna, in the way we saw it with Tasha? Why did Issa finally figure out what she wanted and then simply go back to something she didn’t? It’s not that we need these answers now, but it would have added a depth of perspective to each storyline. A perspective that would have been nice to have in an episode so much about perspective.
But even those issues don’t seem to negate where the finale was supremely successful. Insecure proved why it’s on premium cable. It’s smart, purposeful, good art, and good art revels in its ability to play in delivery and technique. Insecure does something magical—no, masterful—during “Hella Perspective,” from its writing to its lighting. Its attention to the “levels” involved in painting and developing the lives and loves of this handful of black, Los Angeles-based twenty-to-thirty-somethings, set it apart, and have marked it as a truly illuminating modern reflection on black identity.
Abbey White is a Brooklyn-based, Cleveland raised freelance entertainment and identities writer whose work has appeared in Vox, USA TODAY, Paste, The Mary Sue, and Black Girl Nerds, among other publications.