Kenya Barris is ready to rumble. The creator of ABC’s hit sitcom Black-ish and its spin-offs (Grown-Ish and Mixed-Ish) has amassed a considerable amount of wealth and influence in Hollywood by mining the humor in racial discourse, or lack thereof, in America. However, In 2018, Barris left the lucrative yet restrictive confines of network television to sign a multi-year deal with the Netflix streaming service to produce new content. For his first show, BlackAF, Barris leans into his winning formula—his own life—going the extra step of starring as himself in the mockumentary style sitcom (with Rashida Jones playing his wife) that feels like a marriage of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Run’s House.
While the ‘ish’ suffix of his previous work could be interpreted as hedging his bets, leaving some wiggle room on the topic, Barris is uncompromising in BlackAF, where even he doesn’t escape some dissection. The prolific writer and producer spoke with BET.com about some of the topics explored in the show and why, for him, some aspects of Black culture are worth fighting for.
BET: This show was originally called “Black Excellence,” why the change to “BlackAF”?
Kenya Barris: We thought BlackAF sounded funnier. We wanted you to know what you were getting into from the moment you tuned in. When you look at the ‘AF’ in the hashtag, we’re finally in a place where I think being the purest version of yourself, whatever that may be, whatever the thing for that is, [is allowed]. We used to have to hide our nuances. But now the idea is that whatever your thing is, the highest vibration of that is the version that people are responding to. It wasn’t that we were saying this is the only version of Blackness, this is this character’s version. This family is trying to live their life as out loud as possible. And that’s what we want this show to be about.
BET: In one scene with your peers, director Tim Story makes a funny observation that Black-ish taps into the hearts and minds of 55-year-old white women. So, who do you think BlackAF is for?
KB: It’s for everyone. In the same way Black-ish is for everybody and the same way Modern Family should be for everybody and was. This family is part of the American tableau. And that’s what, in general, career-wise, what I’ve been trying to do, give us as many different versions of representation of what it is to be in this country and be part of the fabric of this country in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever properly been acknowledged. So, it’s for everybody.
Tim made that joke and I laughed. I get it. I wrote it. I understand what he’s saying. I would have times where I’d be at an event or the airport and a Black woman who reminds me of my aunt would come up to me and say she loves the show [Black-ish] and literally behind her would be a little Asian lady who says the show reminds her of her family. And I think that, to me, was the biggest accomplishment of anything I’ve done. It really did put us in the zeitgeist in a way that showed we all have a shared humanity. In the best storytelling I think we see ourselves within the specificity of stories.
BET: There is a lot of self-deprecating humor in the show. For example, you refer to yourself as a one-trick pony in one of the opening dialogues. Yet, this show does feel very much like Black-ish, but richer. Is that by design?
KB: I only have one story to tell. I can only write one story. I can write it 300 different ways, but I have one story. [laughs]. No, it had nothing to do with the richer part of it. When I came to Netflix I wanted to do a family show. I enjoy family shows. One of the things for me, one of the blessings and gifts I got in my career is that I did something that I could sit down with my kids and watch. And I feel like I’ve been in the space for so long, even before Black-ish I’ve done things in the family space, going on 20 years and I did feel like the family sitcom needed a bit of a reboot. And I felt like Netflix was the place to do it, especially with them saying the gloves were off and I could do it as loudly as I wanted to do it. You don’t want to fix what’s not broken, but I wanted to try and say how do we approach this in a way that we haven’t done a family show before?
We’re seeing Black culture expand itself and the idea of what it’s like to have first generational success in a way that his family in BlackAF [does] is not something we’ve really seen talked about before. And we couldn’t do it on Network television, because you don’t want to alienate or isolate anyone. One of the executives [I pitched it to], totally not meaning anything bad, said ‘How could he live in a house like that? What, did he invent something?’ The idea of being able to show us having something that could be aspirational wasn’t something they were ready to do at that point. But now we have Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Will and Jada and the idea of having aspirational figures that have made it in a way…but seeing the same issues you go through in their lives. So, I got a chance to do it and that’s what I wanted to do.
BET: One of the compelling parts of the series for me was your conversation around criticism. What do you feel has been your relationship with critics?
KB: I’ve always enjoyed TCAs and critics [who] for the most part have been kind, but at the same time, probing is their job. And I’m the type of person that if you probe you’ll get a little bit more of an honest answer than most. But in general critics have been really kind to me over my career. There was a Steven Spielberg quote about critics, that you either believe all of it or you believe none of it. I feel like I listen to a little bit of all of it. I take the good with the bad. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and a lot of times those opinions do have some shaping or course correction for me. So, I think it’s fair.
BET: In particular, you make a comment about Black critics not being able to critique work by our own.
KB: It’s hard. How many times have you walked out of something and go “Yeah, it’s dope” but then turn and look to your boy and say “Between me and you…” Because there is so few of us we have to [censor ourselves]. I make this argument about Tyler Perry, who I consider a mentor and friend, people have had comments and criticisms about his work—as I have—but my aunt and I and my mom and people I know show up and genuinely enjoy it. And I feel like why are those people’s opinions less important than another person’s opinions? There is an Adam Sandler that exists. He has a lane, he makes movies and they do really well. And when he puts out a movie it’s not the end of white culture because he put out something that critics don’t find to be the highest form of art. But with Tyler Perry, because there are so few of us, it’s the end of Black culture because of something he did and that’s not fair. We need as many lanes as possible. Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay could be doing an interview, and Jerry could make a joke, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t blow something up, Michael.’ And people would laugh and it wouldn’t look ugly for either of those guys to take shots at one another. It would probably make them seem bossier. [But] with us we have to celebrate everything, which I do, but internally even it’s hard to have criticism. True criticism not coming from a malicious place will make our art grow.
BET: You dedicate a lot of time in the show to your gold chain obsession. Tell me about your first gold chain.
KB: I [talked about it] on Black-Ish. It was in junior high when I got my first gold chain. Your first chain is like the first major bike that you get, your first car, it’s like your first leather jacket. It’s a moment. You start looking at your wardrobe for which collarless shirt you have. It had a little gold Africa at the end of it. No one didn’t notice it. I think I made a couple of new friends. We come from a culture where gold and things weren’t sought after like they are now, but they were adornments, we wanted to peacock. We wanted to have things that were beautiful and colorful. I don’t run away from the idea that I love my jewelry and I love those things. It’s something I always wanted growing up. I wanted to be the ‘AF’ part of myself. The fullest realized version of myself and I’ll take the criticism.
BET: Lastly, that Zoom call with your peers is one of my favorite moments in the show. Did you know how prescient that would be given our current shelter in place situation?
F*ck no. Someone brought it up yesterday and dude I had no idea. It’s interesting. We just couldn’t meet up. There is a Black renaissance happening and people are busy. Our people aren’t sitting at home, so as friends we couldn’t connect all together. We were all in different cities and felt that that would be the best way [to do it]. I did not see how prescient it would be because I sit on Zoom calls all day now. So, it’s interesting.
BlackAF premieres on Netflix April 17.