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Writer Tracy Oliver's rise from 'Awkward Black Girl' to big-screen 'Barbershop'

Writer Tracy Oliver and writer/producer Kenya Barris at the L.A. premiere of
Writer Tracy Oliver and writer/producer Kenya Barris at the L.A. premiere of "Barbershop: The Next Cut."
Eric Charbonneau

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Tracy Oliver was a teenager when the first "Barbershop" movie came out in 2002. Little did she know that 13 years later she’d have a writing credit on the third installment of the franchise.

Oliver is a rising star in the film business, having attracted attention for her collaboration with fellow Stanford alumna Issa Rae on the web series, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." Rae is now developing that show for HBO.

Meanwhile, Oliver has a number of her own projects in the works, including a TV series in collaboration with ballerina Misty Copeland. 

When Oliver stopped by The Frame's studio, we began by talking about how she and her “Barbershop: The Next Cut” co-writer Kenya Barris — who’s best known for creating the ABC comedy “Black-ish” — came to write the script together.

Interview Highlights:

How did you and Kenya Barris meet and decide to work together?

He hired me for a show that never aired, but the good part about it was we developed a relationship and we have a great love/hate relationship where we always fight with each other, but at the end of the day we produce great art because of our arguments. We started randomly talking about "Barbershop" one day and I discovered that he was going out for it and I was going out for it. So we were competing against each other. It made sense for us to join together, then we're not competing, we'll probably get this. And then we pitched it as a co-ed movie, a male/female, Mars/Venus thing so we could get both of our points of view in it. 

Do you think that your sense of comedy is dramatically different [than Kenya's] or what were the kinds of things you were having these arguments over?

The thing about the "Barbershop" movies that are so great is that you get so many different perspectives, because you have some of the younger barbers, you have some of the older barbers. We even have an Indian-American barber in there who's very conservative. We got to play with a lot of different perspectives. Kenya is older than me and he's also married, he's a family guy. I'm not. I'm a young, single girl who's still wiling out a lot, so I got to talk about my dating stuff and he would give me advice ... we would just argue about all kinds of stuff, then literally would transcribe it and put it into the script. 

Did you feel that there were any topics or jokes off limits? 

Nothing was off limits, seriously — from [Ice] Cube to the producers to the studio, they were like, No one is off limits. Actually, we had one joke that was removed because Cube felt that going after children was not fair game. It was a Blue Ivy joke. He [said], "You can go after [Beyonce and Jay-Z], but not her." 

Let's talk about this scene:

Can you talk about beauty and how it empowers the women in this story. 

That scene came about because of a real conversation Kenya and I were having. We're always debating about men and women, and men always saying they want women like Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and all of these women with long hair and voluptuous curves and all this stuff. I would say, That's so unrealistic. Women have to go to work and do regular things. These are entertainers. I can't walk around, realistically, in a weave down to my butt and heels and then go write a script ... you're holding real women to these unrealistic standards. But there are women like Drea, played by Nicki Minaj in the movie, who make a career out of being that kind of symbol.

Lets talk about "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," the web series you co-created with Issa Rae. How did that show come about?

We went to Stanford together and we were always the two black girls going out for the same part. We were both into theater and always auditioning for plays and stuff, and literally it would be like one of us would get it, one of us isn't going to get it. There's only one part that's going to go to someone black, and the two of [us] are competing for it and you can't get another part, so, that's what it comes down to. It got to a point where we need to make sure that we create more opportunities so that it doesn't have to be like that. Both of us can act and produce and write at the same time ... She had this idea for an awkward character and I was like, I love it, let's figure it out. We partnered, I put a crew together, I had just finished film school so I was borrowing equipment from USC, borrowing money from my parents, and then we started shooting it for free and had no idea it was going to go viral. 

Did you find that you were able to figure out the stories you wanted to tell through this web series?

Absolutely. There was a period where there just wasn't anything like that on the air. There were no black women on the air, this was pre-"Scandal," pre-"How To get Away With Murder," pre-"Black-ish." When I finished film school I was like, Oh, black women can't exist on television, so we have to put them on the Internet. After that, all of a sudden the landscape of comedy changed. You saw casting calls in show looking for diverse voices, and I was really excited about that.

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