If you’ve been keeping up with pop culture or watching TV over the past few years, you’re probably familiar with Kenya Barris — or at least his work. The multi-talented, Emmy-nominated showrunner/writer/producer/actor and mastermind behind hit shows like “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish” released his first series under his new Netflix mega-deal, “#blackAF“ this past April and folks have been talking about it ever since.
Loosely inspired by Barris’s own life and family, “blackAF” flips the script on the black family sitcom and what it means to be black in America, We spoke with Barris recently about the conversations his series has started among critics and viewers about race, colorism, critiquing art and the “black experience” as depicted in pop culture and the media in the process.
LV Taylor/Awards Circuit: Let’s just start with congrats on getting a second season for “#blackAF.” I know there’s been a lot of criticism, especially from black critics when it comes to the show. Do you think they missed what you were going for?
Kenya Barris: Yeah, man. I don’t agree with them. (Laughing) I put it out. I think they were wrong. No, seriously it’s very interesting to me. I think it’s one of the things that in these situations I understand. I really enjoy criticism in general because I think it promotes and pushes the conversation forward, but I do think that when there are so few of us — in terms of black creators who get the opportunity. A lot of times people want some universal message. And if you don’t nail that universal message, you’re kind of put into a box. And that box can be a negative box. I feel like also — its so interesting — there were four black critics who didn’t like the show and they all pretty much did think pieces as opposed to reviews.
And then after I took it — and I’m the guy who actually reads reviews so I’m like ‘ugh, I want everybody to like my stuff.’ I wish I didn’t care, but I do. They then get together and have a roundtable. Its unprofessional. It’s like ‘we all don’t like Jay. We’ve agreed to that separately, now let’s get together and talk about not liking Jay.’
I feel like the notion of those echo chambers, in my opinion, don’t help push us forward. Have someone there who did enjoy the show, because there were a lot of folks who did like it, especially if you look at Twitter. Have someone in there who did like it just to create a conversation that’s more interesting. To me, that’s the same thing in some aspects. I saw a lot of right-wing pundits/supporters saying ‘safe spaces.’ In my opinion, there’s nothing more dangerous than a safe space. To be in a situation — you should always be free and safe to talk about how you feel — but to be in a situation where everyone is completely of the same mindset of you, that creates really dangerous outcomes.
So I think in the situation with us, where we have to really push each other forward, I think it’s really important to have different conversations. So for your original question, I honestly think that there were things that weren’t for them and they missed and I respect that completely and I don’t have any sort of negative take back. I think some of those things started becoming personal and started involving me and my family in personal ways and went beyond the art, and that bothered me.
LV: Understandable. With a title like “#blackAF,” for those who say that the story wasn’t indicative of the ‘black experience,’ what is your response to that?
KB: What is the ‘black experience?’ What is that? That’s my whole point! We’re not monolithic. That was the whole point of the show. There are things that in being black in this country we have a shared trauma, a shared likeness, absolutely. I think those things were absolutely present. But what I was trying to do with the show — most of the people saying that — I would switch my upbringing with theirs and see if they could handle it. You know what I’m saying.
I grew up in the purest tradition of what the ‘black experience’ or the monolithic experience of what the black experience was, I had it all. I had all the stereotypical lynchpin moments. I feel like the biggest thing is that I don’t feel like they were monolithic. The whole point in what I was trying to do different from “Black-ish,” I know how to do a straight down the middle black family show. I really do. I’ve worked on many of them, I’ve done them. I re-write them all the time. I wanted to show a different experience. Just in the same way that the continuation of my experience from “Black-ish” — that was eight years ago when I started that. I’ve grown and my experiences have grown. The thing I wanted to say is that we may see that just because science has changed or this changed, a lot of the same experiences that we experience, we do have shared-ness to them, no matter the differences in our socio-economic status. And I wanted to do a little bit of reboot of a family sitcom. I didn’t want it to be a saccharine and sweet. I wanted to show the dysfunction. You know what I’m saying? There’s beauty in that dysfunction and there’s functionality in that dysfunction.
LV: With everything currently going on in society, both culturally and politically at this moment, do you think that colors the way viewers watch and respond to the show?
KB: Oh my god. I think that since I put the show out before that and since things have happened, people have literally texted me and said ‘I’m sorry.’
KB: ‘I’m sorry. I see what you were doing differently now.’ I saw a reviewer that said the whole ‘because of slavery…’ thing we get now. Because that was one of the criticisms. Looking back, I’m like no, that’s a generational trauma that I was using in a sardonic, sarcastic way; but at the same time, there’s a double entendre to it because I do believe that all of our actions, we don’t erase 400 years of trauma in one generation. Or two generations. It is a part of all of our interactions and our daily behaviors.
So I feel like everything that’s going on is actually in some ways amplified and more needed. I got accosted for doing another Juneteenth episode. ‘He’s just rehashing “Black-ish.”‘ But if I got another chance to do another show, I’d do another Juneteenth episode. Because what it’s like to be black in America is not an episode or a series or a season. It’s a constant conversation that we need to keep having.
There is this idea that this is a black show for white people. Yeah, I don’t need to explain us to us, completely. You know what I’m saying? So in some aspects, I do want to say, I do want to pull the curtain back. One of my heroes, Richard Pryor, constantly pulled the curtain back, and there wasn’t a blacker person in the world than Richard Pryor. I feel like the idea of pulling the curtain back and talking about that in a way that in some aspects seems to articulate that for them is important. I think that’s how we increase the conversation.
LV: What role do you think satire and humor plays in fighting for racial justice and bringing about change?
KB: I think a lot. And I don’t think that we as black artists get to do it enough. I had a conversation with Boots Riley — who I like and think is really talented — and respectfully, I was like ‘I was totally into your movie until horse-people.’ But then my daughter got mad at me — we went to go see it together — and she was like ‘why can’t we do horse-people? They get to do horse-people.’ I said he could’ve landed that plane in such a different way and she’s like, ‘But why does he have to land it in that particular way?’ It was a really interesting and respectful conversation between two creatives. But I feel like I was honest with him about it. When I started having the conversations with my daughter, I was like ‘I think she’s right.’
That’s the whole thing with criticism and looking at these reviews. Sometimes be willing to have some different people in there because you might exit the conversation differently than you enter it. Hopefully that’ll help us move forward and progress the culture.
LV: Switching gears a little, did you know from the start that you wanted Rashida Jones in the role of Joya, your wife?
KB: Yes! One hundred percent. Never another choice! For a lot of different reasons. She’s one of the few people working that’s black — for most of us, that level of success is first generation. Her and Tracee [Ellis Ross] and one of the few people I really know where it’s truly second generation — they’ve been through it before. So the influence that she had on how the kids in the show would go through it was really important to me. She really did an amazing job as a partner. With my acting and things like that, she gave me support and held my hand in ways that other people wouldn’t have.
LV: That’s whats up. On that note, were you apprehensive about stepping in front of the camera on this one?
KB: That is beyond an understatement! We had another actor — who I love — and it was sorta like there already is another actor playing your life. And at the same time I thought because it’s Netflix, you kind of have a job to be loud. I wanted to be loud and I felt like the best way to be loud was to put myself out there and take a swing that I wouldn’t normally take. So looking back, I think if another actor had played that role — who was better than me — the role wouldn’t have been the same.
LV: Currently we see a lot of folks putting disclaimers on problematic films and networks and streamers removing blackface episodes and things of that nature, but do you think that Hollywood is really going to change going forward and be more diverse and inclusive, not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well?
KB: I do. You can’t ignore this. You can’t put this toothpaste back in the tube. I don’t know how it will ultimately look. But I do think that we will see an actual change.
LV: That’s something to hope for. You’ve previously said that black stories and voices need to be highlighted more. So are there any up-and-coming creators that you’re really excited about?
KB: I just saw — and I know she’s been working on it for a while — I saw Ava [DuVernay] announced her story that she’s doing about Colin Kaepernick. That really excites me. I know Issa [Rae] has some things she’s working on. I’m really excited about ‘let’s get out of the deadly virus-Darth Vader as President-police as the evil empire’ realm that we’re in right now, but I’m really, really, really excited about being black right now. Creatively, if they let us loose, right now we have a chance to really make some noise. And I think that noise is really important that we have critics who are being critical and talking against things. But I do think that my feeling on that is ‘we’re in the place to criticize, but we’re not yet in the place to tear down.’
LV: What can we expect from Season 2 or any of the other works you have in the pipeline over at Netflix?
KB: I think the thing I learned in Season 1 that I had not learned in my career so far, is that I really enjoy the polarizing nature of Season 1. I really enjoyed the notion of starting arguments and having people agree or disagree. It felt like art. I feel like that is what art is supposed to do: start a conversation. So I think in terms of things that I’m doing moving forward, I don’t want to be a contrarian or just do things for the sake of starting a conversation, but I do want to move forward in a way that has the notion that I want to start a conversation.
LV: Well, you’ve definitely succeeded with that so far.
KB: (Laughing) We’ll see. I mean I was fucked up and I was like ‘oh man.’ Its hard when you’re used to one thing and then having your own people question. But it was also really rewarding once I kind of settled into it. It started a conversation and I was very happy about that.