Sasha Leigh Henry has already amassed quite a resume within the Canadian film and television industry. A filmmaker known for her sharp humour in works like her brilliant short film Sinking Ship, which played TIFF back in 2020, she is also a writer, producer and co-founder of Sunflower Studios. The latter is a female-led production company that she created with longtime collaborators director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, and producers Tamar Bird and Iva Golubovic. Now she can add showrunner to her list of accomplishments with the release of the comedy series Bria Mack Gets A Life (read our review from when it premiered at TIFF), which is now streaming on Crave in Canada.
The series follows recent university graduate Bria McFarlane (Malaika Hennie-Hamadi) whose plans to delay adulthood get derailed when she is forced to find a job and a place to live. Accompanied by Black Attack (Hannan Younis), her inner hype girl, Bria tries to navigate the challenges of being a Black woman in a predominantly white office space. As she tries to deal with microaggressions, deadlines, and a potential office romance, Henry takes the viewers into Bria’s pop culture-filled mind to see how she processes it all.
We sat down with the showrunner to discuss using comedy to offer a different portrait of Black life, why gifs are a universal language, the importance of having a healthy work environment, and more.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Courtney Small: One of the things I was thinking about while watching the show was the ways in which you use comedy to recontextualize the Black experience we normally see on Canadian television. I wanted to pick your brain a little bit about why you chose comedy as the avenue for this particular story?
Sasha Leigh Henry: It might be cheesy to say, but I don’t think I picked comedy, so much as comedy picked me. The things my family liked to watch when I was growing up, and resonated with, were often comedic. When I got the opportunity to make a show, I knew for sure it was going to be a comedy. In Canada it is not that common that we have content that addresses racism head on and in an explicit way. We do get a lot of that content from the States and have seen what these situations look like addressed in a more severe setting. Sometimes it feels triggering for us to watch that on screen, especially after living it.
I was really focused on how can we get the last laugh here? How can we shed light on this but give a character like Bria the agency to have the power to be able to have the final say on the matter and change it that way. I think that’s where Black Attack is a great tool for that.
You talk about how we see the struggle from the American perspective, and I would argue that, from a Canadian perspective, we see that struggle often coming from poverty. Whereas shows like Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek portray their characters starting off from “stable homes”. It was really refreshing to see Bria come from a normal suburban home. Sure, she is going through universal problems, but it is also a reminder that [Black individuals] are normal people.
Henry: When I talk about wanting diversity in film and television for me that is diversity in terms of the people who are making it, diversity in terms of the people telling the stories who are in front of the camera, and diversity in the kind of stories we are telling. I find that a lot of it is the single mom is always really struggling and I’m like ‘what if it wasn’t that?’ Let’s start with I don’t know what its going to be, but let’s not do that. I grew up relatively middle class in Brampton and that is not everyone’s story. However, we don’t need every story about Black people to be “every” Black person’s story.
Toni Morrison always says, “in the specific is the universal” and I wanted to really lean into that and what it was like in my life. It was interesting because the very first outline I wrote for the show, I realized I was writing a Black American show as that is what I always watched as half hour comedies. I had to train myself to consider what is the Black experience for me as a Black woman in Canada. What really opened up my mind was when I thought about Chewing Gum, [I questioned] what makes Chewing Gum different from Insecure? Technically, on paper, you can describe them the same, young Black woman trying to figure herself out in a major city or adjacent place. When you watch them, of course, they are wildly different shows. What makes Chewing Gum different is that her mom is African, super religious, and that alone adds so much colour and texture to the world that makes it different from Insecure. I just started thinking how do I actually show up? That allows for something that feels fresh to people even though there is familiar elements in what we are doing.
During the TIFF premiere, you had mentioned not wanting to make the mom the stereotypical character with the bad Jamaican accent. The mom is my favourite supporting character, although she is only in it for a short time, because she feels like a real woman. She confident in herself and has a love life, which is something you rarely see Black woman of a certain age in the mother role have. Was the romantic element something that you intentionally want to go against what we normally see?
Henry: I think the general intention and ethos was approaching everything from a different perspective, but some of it I didn’t think about as consciously. So much of the show is how can we put Bria in a context and situation where it might be awkward for her. I like the idea of [the mother] having a love life, the opposite of the struggling single mom. She was very successful, met a guy, bounced back after the divorce, because why not? I think film and television really does acts like a mentor if people don’t have another guide…that’s why representation is so important. It’s not that there isn’t a struggle or a reality to the kind of overrepresentation of Black people in the prison systems and those type of things, that is very real. However, that is not the only thing that we have to say and offer. In every way it was how can we counter the existing narrative we already know, but we as Black people know is not the only thing.
Your show has a lot of pop culture references and showcases a lot of meme culture when you are inside Bria’s mind. Was there ever a discussion or debate on whether people will still find a particular reference funny?
Henry: It was a conversation that came up every three drafts or so after you finish writing. The internet moves so quickly and when I started writing this, Tik Tok was not the thing that it is. We had to codify what our metric was for whether a gif could be usable in the show. There are some gifs that are trendy because of what is happening right now on the internet, but I don’t know six months from now if that is going to be a go to gif that people are going to use or know the context of why it is funny. There is a real lifeline to gifs and memes.
I wanted it in [the show] because I firmly believe gifs might be one of the few global languages we have. Without any words I can get a gif from my cousin in Jamacia who lives a completely different life from me, and we both understand what is being communicated. I was keen on exploring that idea and the idea that gifs play in my head all the time. I would poll the room sometimes and ask do you guys know what that gif is? There would need to be specific ways I even described them in the script to make sure that the network [could understand] without having to Google them. We narrowed it down to what we call classic gifs, ones that had been around long enough that my mom and my niece would know whether they knew the origin or not.
In relation to the metrics for classic gifs, was there any metric on how many you would incorporate per episode?
Henry: Yes, because in it [Malaika Hennie-Hamadi] who plays Bria is reenacting them and, so for such a small beat, production wise we didn’t know how to pull them off yet [when writing the scripts]. We also didn’t want, and it is the same thing with Black Attack, to use something too often that it begins to lose its impact. One of the things I like about the show, and I do believe we achieved it, is that we keep the audience on their toes. We keep a certain element of surprise. The storyline is something that is we can all identify with, she is twentysomething trying to find an apartment and a job. So, the gifs and pop culture elements are how the show becomes even more relatable, but also unique at the same time.
You wear many hats as a showrunner, writer, director, and producer in this industry. Out of all these roles, which do you find the most rewarding and which is the most challenging?
Henry: I think it’s a tie between showrunning and directing for what I find really rewarding. Showrunning just edges it out a bit more because I didn’t quite understand what the role was before coming into this experience. Once I did my research and we got into [the production], it honestly felt like I was putting on my old favourite bucket hat. It felt very natural to me. Sometimes with directing I still feel a bit nervous not knowing all of the technical terms, but it is rewarding to see something that you imagined in your head happen in front of you and on the screen in the way you imagined.
Showrunning was rewarding because of how natural it felt and because we were successful in what we wanted to achieve as a team. As a showrunner, I wanted a set that people wanted to come back to often with a group of people who shared the ethos of what we were trying to make and would feel proud to tell people “I helped to work on that show.” Especially coming out of those early pandemic years where we were also learning about some of the conditions that people do work in, it felt irresponsible to get this opportunity and to not keep that in mind. I wanted to maintain a decent energy on set for proof that if could be done.
And the one that I find the most challenging is writing. I’m definitely a talker, and have the idea, but when I go to the draft there is always a part of it where it needs to be worked on further. In my mind it is very unsatisfying because I’m like “it was fire in my head, I don’t know what is going on in this page right now.”
The moment you put it on paper it doesn’t quite look right.
Henry: Yeah, I was cooking with gas when this was just in my head, but Final Draft is acting kind of shady now. I think that part of the process is tough as I am a very impatient person. I find it can be tedious sometimes to go through drafts and edits. However, I cannot deny that there is not a single thing that I have ever written that did not get better with those edits and drafts.
Bria Mack Gets A Life is streaming now on Crave. Stay tuned for our interview with lead actors Malaika Hennie-Hamadi and Hannan Younis.