Interview: Rashida Jones on ‘#BlackAF’ and Kenya Barris

The writer, director, and actress discusses the need for more Black stories.

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Rashida Jones is known for playing ethnically ambiguous, rational women among more “off-the-wall” characters in some of your favorite sitcoms (“The Office”, “Parks and Recreation”). But in her most recent role as Joya, the wife and mother in the fictionalized version of Kenya Barris’s family, Rashida has finally found a role that she can really see herself in, not quite as “in-your-face.”

We recently spoke with Jones about her experiences working on the Netflix series and performing alongside the show’s creator.

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Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones star in “#blackAF” — Courtesy of Netflix

LV Taylor/Awards Circuit: Can I just start by saying you are absolutely hilarious in “#blackAF”? It really seemed like you were just made for that role.

Rashida Jones: You know what, I think some part of me has never been expressed in quite this way and I do feel like there is something about this character that is more like me in some way — not in all the ways — but in some way it’s more like me than any other character I’ve played.

LV: What was it like working with Kenya Barris and working on the show specifically?

RJ: Kenya is an incredibly collaborative person. He is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and I feel like I’m the same way. I like to work with people who feel that way so when you do partner up, it’s about bringing out the best in both of your experiences. Because this project is so closely related to this life, I wanted to make sure to do right by that but also make sure that the character had a life of its own — and he was very, very good for that. And not precious about which direction that went in that might’ve been different from his real life. He was very, very open. And great to work with.

LV: The show has been kind of polarizing and has really started some conversations, particularly about colorism and the “black experience” and what that is or isn’t, in some people’s mind. Honestly, I was kind of blown away by the faction of people who were up-in-arms over your casting saying that you weren’t “black enough” and the folks who really had no clue that you were black, period. What was your response to that? How’d you feel about that?

RJ: I didn’t actually say anything. As you said, it was a conversation starter and the show is meant for that, to begin conversations and not to provide absolute answers to anything. It’s really meant to bring up questions, conversations that you can have at home with your friends, family and co-workers. I think as somebody who — colorism is real, I’ll just say that first and foremost — I’m well aware of the European standards that have been inflicted upon everybody in this country and out of this country, the pressure and discrimination of racism that has come from that standard and also just the lack of representation because of that standard.

I’m also aware that I have light-skinned privilege. I have always been aware of that. I think there is something specific about being mixed and/or light-skinned — you’re always reminded — I didn’t flow through any part of my life where white people or black people left me any delusion of what I looked like. I was always reminded. So it’s not new for me in any way.

I think the thing for me was that this character is a light-skinned, mixed woman so it felt like the perfect and right place to bring my personality and experience to a character. In the past, you know, I think people have misconceptions about how much we have control about the parts we get and are offered. At the beginning of my career, from like 21 until probably 35, I went out for roles that I got auditions for. Some of them were white roles — not said white, but you know ‘read between the lines white’ — and some of them were black and the truth was, I never booked those roles because I don’t think the way I looked was as well-represented then in the early 2000s. It started to happen more and more which is great. By the way, I’m not saying that in any kind of bitter way. I just didn’t book those roles. And the ones I did book that were “white read between the lines” I tried my best to be like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable playing this role unless, if there is any addressing of my family, you can’t erase the fact that I’m black.’ Even within that, there’s jokes that are made about my ambiguous ethnicity in so many of the roles that I’ve played which are kind of funny, but kind of not to me because it doesn’t reflect my own pride about being black.

So I understand why people felt like, ‘Wait, what?’ But what else could I do as a black person besides play a role that’s right for me? My dad [Quincy Jones] is an icon. There’s no hiding any part of that in any way. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of. Listen, it brought up some stuff people didn’t know and now they know.

LV: In terms of the role, how much of it was Rashida and how much was Joya, the written character?

RJ: I hope that Rashida as a person — but you’d have to talk to my friends and family about this — is a little less depraved and ratchet than Joya. Joya’s pretty take-no-prisoners. I’m probably a little more — or maybe it’s just the point I’m at in my life — considerate about the people around me. Joya had kids really young and her entire identity got swallowed up by motherhood, so she’s pushing back now and trying to figure out how to be her own person, and sometimes you can overcorrect. And that’s for sure what’s she’s doing. But Joya and Rashida both share a love of dancing — that’s a real thing — and I’m also very opinionated and I don’t back down if I disagree with people I love. And she’s like that too.

LV: This is a somewhat of a different type of a role for you, from “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” and how we’re used to seeing you. Was it more fun for you to play this role and kind of let loose a little bit more?

RJ: Yes, in some ways it really was. I think I was relegated — and that’s fine because it’s a part of my personality — to playing a lot of supportive girlfriends and friends to people — steady, sane, available girlfriends/friends. But I don’t know, it’s way more fun to be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ That part of it is super fun to play because you just get to let loose and anything goes. Everything from my incredible wardrobe to being able to dance all the time to just saying what’s on my mind no matter who I offend. There’s something incredibly freeing about that and I didn’t have that opportunity before.

LV: You directed an episode that dealt with the issue of the over-sexualization of young black girls. Why did you feel like that was a particular issue that needed to be highlighted in this series?

RJ: I think often the complexities of being black in America are far and wide as we’re seeing in this present moment. But I think unfortunately, a lot of times when we are telling these stories, black women and girls get the least focus on the problems that are particular to them. There’s a long history in this country of over-sexualizing and adultifying black girls in a way that makes it easier for people to justify their own bad behavior and projections onto black girls.

We just scratched the surface. It’s a comedy and my relationship with my daughters, but there’s a lot more to talk about there and I think as a modern parent it’s important. This is a family of privilege, but it’s also a black family, so do you let your kids express themselves and be free and fuck the world or do you give them the information and context of what the world is like that they’re entering? What’s the balance there?

As a parent, that’s an important thing and culturally, understanding the long history of how black women and girls have been treated in this country, I hope this is the beginning of a much longer conversation.

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“#BlackAF” — Courtesy of Netflix

LV: You’re an actress/writer/producer/director. You wear many hats, but is there a particular one you enjoy wearing more than others?

RJ: You know, I’ve been really lucky because there have been so many projects now where I get to do two of three or three of three sometimes — and “#blackAF” in particular — to start something from the ground up. Well, it was Kenya’s life, but to be a part of something from its inception, and to be able to help shape characters and storylines and jokes, and then be able to play those things that you were a part of helping to create, and then to direct those things. That’s really the dream, to be able to feel that invested where you get to be a part of it in every way. I love directing. I find it really hard to direct something that I’m in. I actually don’t know how people do it, it just doesn’t work for me, that’s a completely different hat. But writing/directing together is great and then writing and acting together is great. I think it’s just about what’s going to take the most energy on the day. And acting just takes a lot of energy. It’s hard to do anything else but that.

LV: You’ve been in and around the industry for a while. What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned over the years about the industry or about yourself?

RJ: Definitely that there’s no endpoint. I think I used to have this idea when I was younger that I would pass through a certain threshold of success and I would sit back and put my hands behind my head and be like, ‘I’ve made it!’ But that’s just not realistic. I thank God because for me — my dad has always taught me this — if you can keep your curiosity alive you’ll always have stuff to do, you’ll always get hired and you’ll always be able to create. I was almost relieved in a sense that when I did begin to experience the success — or what I deemed to be success — that it wasn’t fulfilling me because it was just a reminder that the process is the only thing that can really make life feel fulfilling.

But also that the business is shady. It’s a game.  It’s politics.  It’s not always a meritocracy and you have to protect your little bubble in order to do the things you want to do. You’re going to have to engage with that on some level, but you have to have a gut instinct to protect what it is that you want to do. Most people in the business are only interested in the moneymaking part of it — it’s a huge moneymaker — so that colors every interaction that you have with people. You are the only one that can protect your actual creative vision because at the end of the day, nobody else is going to care the way that you care.

LV: So we’ve got one more question. We both know that there’s a lot going on in today’s society, culturally and politically —

RJ: What do you mean?! (Laughing) Just kidding.

LV: We’ve seen recently that there are white actors stepping away from voicing characters of color or with HBO Max temporarily taking down “Gone With the Wind” to add a disclaimer before showing it again. Do you feel like we have reached this moment in time where there will be more real change in Hollywood with them telling more diverse stories and ultimately increasing diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera? Are you optimistic about this moment in time and what lays ahead?

RJ: Oh, that’s such a deep question. God, I hope so. I hope so. These symbolic moves are good, but what they’re not is they’re not inclusive. They are just people who are scared to get in trouble. That’s great, that’s part of it, opening your eyes and realizing what you took for granted is not inclusive. But at the same time, what’s important is telling these stories and stacking the pipeline behind the camera. Showing the spectrum of representation from the kinds of stories that are possible.

Not to cite another article because I know we’re doing an interview, but Lena Waithe did an op-ed in Variety and she had a quote about how there’s more shows about white angst than there are about just normal black life. That hit me so hard because it’s true.

We have so much filling in to do in terms of the spectrum of black stories. We just made a show about a very niche, new money black family, which is great because they are part of the spectrum. But there’s so many stories that aren’t being told in Hollywood. They tell the black stories they want to tell. Whether to make themselves feel good with the white savior stories or how things changed in the South. Whatever it is, we just need more stories.

That’s great, I’m glad people’s minds are starting to shift around who’s representing who, but now it’s time to actually go and help cultivate relationships with young storytellers and get them to the place where they can actually write and shoot and edit and air their stories. That’s what’s important. But I’m hoping. I feel like a lot is changing, so I am hopeful.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Rashida Jones for speaking with us.

“#blackAF” is currently streaming on Netflix. For more information, visit the official website.

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