Two years ago Kenya Barris woke up to news reports that a politically-charged episode of his hit show black-ish had been shelved over creative differences with ABC, the network that produces and broadcasts the family dramedy. A few months later, Barris would announce his exit at ABC to ink a new production deal at Netflix. Since his departure, Barris has been open about his frustration with the limitations of network television and why he felt it was the right time to leave. This week he will find out if his risky move for creative freedom will be embraced by fans and critics. After a two-year absence, Barris is finally back on our screens with a new-ish family show, #blackAF.
The first show released by his production company as part of an overall $100 million deal with the streaming giant, #blackAF is within a vein that the creator of black-ish, mixed-ish, and grown-ish knows all too well. The veteran writer-producer has created another dramedy centered on a fictionalized version of his own family. Dubbing the show (formerly known as #blackexcellence) a more authentic version of his real-life family, Barris plays the Larry David–esque patriarch in this Curb Your Enthusiasm–style comedy about Hollywood, Black culture, and family.
The series costars Rashida Jones as family matriarch Joya, Genneya Walton as eldest Barris child Chloe, Iman Benson as 17-year-old narrator Drea, Scarlet Spencer as difficult middle child Izzy, Justin Claiborne as sensitive 10-year-old Pops, Ravi Cabot-Conyers as precocious Kam, Richard Gardenhire Jr. as youngest of the Barris brood Brooklyn, and Gil Ozeri as personal assistant Danny. Guest stars playing themselves include industry heavyweights like Ava DuVernay, Steven Levitan, Will Packer, Tyler Perry, Issa Rae, Tim Story, and Lena Waithe.
Unleashed as it were into the wild world of streaming, this new show, though familiar, does hit harder than what was previously allowed on linear network television. For Netflix, it appears no subject is off-limits, which was a blessing and a curse according to #blackAF’s creator and star. When we spoke to Barris, he was candid about his new terrifying jump to streaming, why he still reads reviews – and pays attention to his Tomatometer scores – and how he got DuVernay and Rae to crack jokes about him and their respective work for one of the series’ standout episodes.
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: Tell us about #blackAF. Is this black-ish unleashed?
Kenya Barris: Yes, and no. It’s a family show about my family, so in that, it is like black-ish, but those were archetypes. This is more accurate — well, except for the mother of my children; she’s very different from what Rashida is doing. Rashida is a little bit more of a revolutionist. I’ve been doing family shows for a long time, but felt like they needed a reboot. With Netflix, it feels like we’re in this new era, in this new dawn, and what better place to try to reboot black-ish into a more authentic family. I made them functionally dysfunctional. And the notion behind it was to take out of my point of view, give the point of view of my daughter, and try and do it in a much more honest way.
At ABC, I love those guys, but they were terrified of talking about having any kind of success. They thought it could be ostracizing. I always felt the opposite. I felt like, in the time of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Barack and Michelle [Obama], or Swizz Beatz and Alicia [Keys], the idea of wish fulfillment and aspirational things really resonates. At the core of it, it’s a human story; that was what I’m tapping into, or that was what we hoped. But it’s also so much scarier, because this was me and much closer to my real family — a rejection of this is a rejection of me in a much bigger way.
You’ve mostly worked in linear television. How was the switch to streaming?
Barris: It was terrifying. It honestly was. No ad breaks? Just streaming? I’m a fan of telling stories where in Act 1, you set the problem up, really explore it in the second, and resolve it in the third. And this was a completely different way of telling those stories. I really enjoyed it, to be honest with you. I enjoyed not having to focus on act breaks and commercials.
But at the same time, one of the things that I missed was, Netflix is an unbelievably free, creative environment. As much s–t as I used to talk about getting notes, there’s something to having “a partner” give you notes, even if you disagree with them. The freedom to make what you want is a place you want to be as creative person. But if it bombs, you can’t blame anybody else. [Laughs] I was like, Be careful what you wish for. But, it was a really, really good experience. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the show, but we’re proud of what we did. They let me do something that I’ve never done before. I’m so proud of the actors and the family that we put together and the kids and Rashida. But it was terrifying.
As your first show on a new deal with Netflix, this is a big swing as far as subject matter and tone. Was that a choice?
Barris: I wanted to be noisy. [Netflix] is doing 400 series this year. Not 400 episodes of television, 400 series. To stand out in that crowd was really important to me. I would like to say I don’t care what people think, but I care about the critics. In network television, you have your morning-after scorecard. You have ratings…that was like basically getting your grade on your test.
Netflix doesn’t really have that. All you really have is critics, and they’ll tell you if you make it or not. So for that, I knew I wanted to be loud. I wanted to try to be noisy and let it be authentic and personal. And know your lane — this is as close to my lane as I possibly can get. I let myself hang out there, but it makes it a lot scarier.
Let’s talk about episode 5. It talks about criticism and Rotten Tomatoes in general, but the first thing we have to know is, are you surprised by anything else besides Space Jam, which is discussed in the episode, being rated Rotten on the Tomatometer?
Barris: [Laughs] Not to be controversial, but — f–k it — I’m just gonna say it: I’m a huge Boots Riley fan. I think Sorry To Bother You got a 90-something percent. I’m like, Really? I’m with you until horse people. [Laughs] But my daughter argues with me about it, because she was like, “That’s the beauty of it.” We don’t get to do that often in our business … We [Black creatives] are not allowed to be open and fluid, have weird endings, and get those kinds of ratings. But still, I check the score.
At RT, we argue about scores all the time if that makes you feel any better. Will you be checking the score for #blackAF when it drops? Do you still care?
Barris: Absolutely. I care. Tyler thinks I’m crazy for caring, but I care. I care what white people are saying. I care what gay people think. I care what Black people think. I care what Rotten Tomatoes thinks. I care. Steven Spielberg put this article out, and he said if you believe any of it, you have to believe all of it, so he doesn’t read reviews. Good for him. I’m neurotic. I want to be liked, probably too much, but I definitely care. I think we need commercial success. There’s room for If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight, but there was also something special about Cosby. We have learned the whole story about the man now, but at the time it was special that he became what he did. The Cosby Show changed the trajectory of what we were in this world. That was the first time I ever saw my white friends want the same father that I had.
It’s one of the things that I was really always happy about with black-ish is that when we first came on, we beat or came close to beating Modern Family. And, that was a huge statement to the powers that be. A lot of things that came after were because of black-ish in some aspect. Not to toot my own horn, but they were kind of derivative of what we did. Other creators said, “Oh, why can’t I talk about my family? I could talk about my family, and I can be more specific.” People started seeing themselves reflected in things and that became the mainstream.
You brought in Tyler Perry for this episode to talk about the Rotten Tomatoes, and he doesn’t share your opinion.
Barris: I love that Tyler was like, “Oh, I don’t f–k with them Tomatoes.” I have people in my family, they enjoy his films, particularly my mom, my aunt, and some of my relatives. They get so much enjoyment from his movies — honest enjoyment, not just ironic or so-bad-it’s-good, just honest enjoyment. He opens up at box offices and does business, too. So why are those people’s opinion not as important as someone else’s opinion. Their opinion counts, too. Tyler puts a movie out that people enjoy. And because people or certain critics might not feel like it’s the most elevated form of comedy, he’s destroyed Black culture. There are people who really enjoy him, just as there are people who love Adam Sandler.
Tyler Perry opens up doors for Shonda [Rhimes] and me, for Barry Jenkins, and so many others. The only color Hollywood really cares about is green. And, he has the greenest story in Hollywood. He deserves to do his movies and be celebrated just as much as Adam Sandler. He knows his audience. He entertains them, and he’s opened so many doors for people of color. Why take away his success? Why marginalize his success because it’s not for you. That’s where Rotten Tomatoes and those other aggregators have a hard time accurately evaluating our work. It’s hard because I feel like many white male reviewers are afraid. They feel like if a female-driven movie or an LGBTQ movie or a Black movie comes out, they can’t rip on it. They think, I’m not going to be the guy who says something bad about this. Then at the same time, because Tyler Perry’s the whipping boy, he’s the one guy that they’re comfortable taking a swipe at, and I have a problem with that.
In that same episode, you had a Zoom call with a ‘fictional’ Ava DuVernay, Tim Story, Lena Waithe, Will Packer, and Issa Rae — a.k.a. some of the biggest names in Black Hollywood. How did that come about? Did they have input in their ‘characters’?
Barris: I wrote it, and I gave them a little bit of a pitch when I sent it. My pitch was Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer could be on a show together. And, Jerry could joke, “Sorry I didn’t blow something up, Michael.” No one would think any less of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer for that. They’d say, “They’re bosses and that’s how they talk in real life.” They can be self-deprecating with their work and never think less about each other. Why can’t we do that? Here’s the exact group of people responsible for a lot of entertainment on television right now. Especially, in a cultural sense. Why do all our calls have to be something that’s like, “Between you and me…” Why can’t people see us actually have the conversations that we have and know that we’re critiquing our work, too, just the same way everyone else is critiquing our work.
How honest do you think creatives are with each other, publicly or privately, if you could give them a grade?
Barris: I think it’s probably a B. The one thing that I really appreciate about us is that we show up for each other. Black Panther is a great example of us showing up for each other. Black Panther was an amazing movie. Ryan Coogler is going to go down as one of the best filmmakers in the history of cinema. But, one of the things that helped that movie is that we showed up for him. In addition to everyone else showing up, because it was a great movie, we showed up for him. And it was the same thing with Girls Trip. That first weekend, in droves, and our people showed up with their girlfriends. And then boom, next thing we see is white girlfriends showing up doing the same thing. When things cross over and become mainstream, and it allows everyone else to be a part of it. It doesn’t feel so niche.
That’s something that we do, and it’s important that we continue to do it. As far as celebrating sort of publicly, actually, I think we get an A. I think that privately the conversations are always a little bit scarier. You can have them with your close peers, and sometimes it’s a little bit harder to sit through, because you don’t want to have say something that makes someone feel like you’re not being supportive. But we’re getting better. The calls, that episode, the willingness of people who have active careers to do things like this shows that we’re getting better. I’m a huge Jordan [Peele], but after Jordan did Us, I was seeing articles saying like, “He’s Hitchcock.” And I was like, I think even Jordan would be like, “That’s a little bit quick.” There’s a positiveness to us being embraced like that, but we have to put in the work. We have to be respected in terms of the general notion of what it takes to really put those 10,000 hours in.
I just watched Unorthodox on Netflix, and I’m like, Why can’t we [Black people] have this? Black people get, like, four stories to tell. White people have like a million options. With [Unorthodox], that story was such a niche story, but it was told so well, someone bought it and people support it. I’m like, Why can’t we tell more of those stories? Why can’t we get stories that feel outside of what people are used to hearing from us?, because that’s how we actually grow…culturally and within the industry.
Since you do read reviews, do you have a favorite critic?
Barris: Emily Nussbaum did a great New Yorker article on me, and she kind of changed my career. She embedded with us for a few days and she really got it. She’s also like a TV fanatic. I am always interested in what people like her have to say. I get it. Some people don’t like what I do, and I am OK with that, but I am also not going to pretend it doesn’t bother me. I get it: I’m not for them. But that’s that needy part of me, because I want so badly for them to like my stuff.
Many creatives feel that way. Quentin Tarantino was awarded Best Original Screenplay last year by New York Film Critics Circle, and he spent half his acceptance speech talking about one of the members who has hated every movie he’s made, but Tarantino loves his writing. And this is a man with multiple Oscars and nothing to prove.
Barris: And, that’s part of why Tarantino’s a good writer. How do you say that you don’t care? How could you not care? It’s you. You’ve put years of your time, energy, and life-blood into this thing, to say you don’t care? It’s like you’re either a sociopath or a liar.
#blackAF premieres April 17 on Netflix.