This is not your average family comedy. This is #blackAF. From the brain of Kenya Barris comes another comedic social commentary series in the same vein as “Black-ish” and “Mixed-ish.” But don’t go in thinking this one is as mild-mannered as its predecessors. “#blackAF” flips the script on the family comedy and is more in your face with the social criticism. Each episode leaves viewers questioning everything from racism, sexism, assimilation, gentrification, relationships, parenthood, consumerism to materialism and everything in between.
Told in the form of mockumentary, “blackAF” is a story within a story. While loosely ripped from the pages of Barris’s own life (he actually plays himself in the show), it is a more heightened version of his family dynamic. The Barris’s are a well-to-do, “new money” black family thrust in the middle of Hollywood’s elite. Family members are in-your-face, brutally honest and stay true to themselves while grappling with societies expectations and preconceived notions of “blackness.” The storyline is constructed and told through the lens of his second eldest daughter who is making a documentary for her application for film school–its social commentary couched in a documentary within a mockumentary–very meta.
Barris’s talent for writing and depth at using satire to skewer current culture shines brightly in this series. Although Barris’s acting at times comes across a little flat, having him portray himself grappling with the question of “blackness” and parenthood make the situations all the more authentic and thought-provoking. The characters are bold, honest and unfiltered as they maneuver through a society in which they are often seen as outsiders or interlopers. How did they get here and do they really belong are two reoccurring questions. The family confronts having to deal with “white gaze” and being seen as invisible or not belonging in a “white world” unless they conform or more closely resembling white people. But this is not a family that conforms or waters themselves down. Barris and the members of his family deal with that on a daily basis playing a balancing act while staying true to their black selves.
Not only is this a glimpse into black culture seen through the lens of otherness, it is also a history and cultural anthropology lesson. One of the major themes in the series is “because of slavery” is valid answer to most of the issues and questions that linger within black society and society as a whole. Take for instance “adultification” (the narrative that black girls are perceived to be more mature at a younger age and not seen as needing protection) and the the absent black father narrative perpetuated by society. Both of these are direct legacies of slavery and its impact on the black family. “blackAF” does a great job of drawing the line between history and modern society without preaching and forcing it down your throat.
“blackAF” also takes jabs at the industry itself and tackles art and entertainment through the lens of someone of that world. Often times at odds with that world, Barris does not want to be seen as going against the culture because #supporteverythingblack, after all. It is always interesting when a show or film dissects and critiques its own industry. In this case, the series takes a deep dive into creatives of color seeking the validation and approval from critics and viewers who don’t look like them. These critics and voters often times don’t share their experiences and don’t know how to relate to them, thus can’t adequately evaluate their worth. This is a disservice to the culture, the industry and the world of viewers. The series also examines a debate that has been a hot topic as of late–separating the art from the artist. Barris, his daughter and his industry friends debate the validity of watching art for pure entertainment and treating it as such versus watching everything with a critical eye.
The thought-provoking writing wouldn’t be quite as poignant without the great cast of actors and their comedic timing to make such heavy subject matters entertaining and relevant. The cast includes the hilariously charming Rashida Jones, who plays Barris’s wife Joya, a bi-racial woman grappling with having her “blackness” tested consistently. Their children are played by Genneya Walton (“Xtant”), Iman Benson (“Suits”), Scarlet Spencer (“Bright”), Justin Claiborne (“Reverie”), Ravi Cabot-Conyers (“The Resident”) and Richard Gardenhire Jr. Each child brings their own flavor and quirks, ultimately all tying into the theme of “what is blackness.” By the end of the first 5 episodes, it is clear to see that there is no one definition of “blackness”–it is the sum total of all its colors and brilliance. Tune in for the laughs and eccentricities and stay for the cultural commentary and post modern take on assimilation.