The Emmy-nominated showrunner details the battle all of Hollywood has buzzed about, including the Spike Lee-narrated episode that led to his departure, clashes with Disney's Ben Sherwood, "monster" Roseanne and the anxiety of high expectations with his massive streaming deal: "I'm f—ing terrified."
When Kenya Barris sat down last fall to write an episode of his ABC comedy Black-ish, titled "Please, Baby, Please," he had a sense it might stir up trouble.
The setup was relatively simple: Dre, the Johnson family patriarch played by Anthony Anderson, was telling his infant son, Devante, a bedtime story that reflected on the events of his first year on the planet. It was, per multiple sources, a mix of political allegory (an animated fairy tale about a character named The Shady King) and actuality (news footage of Donald Trump, the Charlottesville attacks and the NFL kneeling protests). "When you're putting a baby to sleep, you're trying to soothe whatever anxieties they're having," says Barris, speaking for the first time about the controversial episode. "So, this was about me trying to pat the butt of the country and soothe people."
"Please, Baby, Please," which was supposed to air in the back half of the Emmy-nominated series' fourth season, was shot in wide angle, with very little score. Production is said to have upped its usual episode budget of $3 million or so, spending handsomely on rights and clearances for such things as the Sam Cooke ballad "A Change Is Gonna Come," which Barris personally met with Cooke's goddaughter to secure. He enlisted a high-profile illustrator, too, and hired his hero Spike Lee to do voiceover, since the episode took its title and inspiration from a children's book written by Lee and his wife. Rather than focus on the entire Johnson clan, as Black-ish typically does, the episode centered primarily on Dre and his interpretation of real-world events presented to his son as a form of catharsis. As a father of six, Barris has had plenty of experience calming children at bedtime.
"We approached it with the network and the studio as, 'This is different,'" says the 44-year-old showrunner. "We certainly knew people would talk about it."
The episode did, in fact, get people talking, if not for the reason Barris anticipated. Mere days before its scheduled Feb. 27 air date, "Please, Baby, Please" was mysteriously and indefinitely shelved. While Barris is strategic with his choice of words — careful never to utter the phrase "censorship" as others throughout the industry do — the move turned out to be the last straw in his long-standing and already complicated relationship with The Walt Disney Co. "I don't know that I would have been as useful to them as they'd need me to be after that," he offers. Those in his cast are far less diplomatic. Tracee Ellis Ross has called the decision "frightening," while Anderson suggests it was a personal affront. "He'd given his blood, sweat and tears to [the episode], which they had signed off on every step of the way — from the outline, to the script, to the table read, to the point where they actually spent the money and made the episode," says the actor, who's also an executive producer. "And I don't know what those conversations were, but we entered into this partnership with the understanding that we would be able to tell the stories that we wanted to tell."
Anderson was first informed of the decision by Barris and his manager only four or five days before the episode was supposed to run. He, like much of the cast, was shocked, and more than a little confused. What Barris hadn't told his actors was that he'd been quietly locked in battle over the episode's fate for weeks. There'd been a flurry of back-and-forths with executives as high up as CEO Bob Iger, who called Barris from home, sick with laryngitis, and, per two sources, had a reasoned conversation with the showrunner about the political sensitivities of being a broadcast network in 2018. Executives at ABC, more than any other network, have been forthright about their desire for more red-state programming since Trump's win — and with Barris' latest episode, they feared they'd be alienating the very population they'd tried so hard to court. That Disney brass wouldn't want to poke Trump himself just as the company was seeking Justice Department approval of its acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox is widely believed to have been a factor as well.
What becomes clear in Barris' presence is how loath he is to piss off a group of executives with whom he still has plenty of business. "I know there was some concern about partisanship," he says, "and the way the episode was angled and the balance in terms of some of the stories. On network TV, one of the things I've learned is that you have to talk about things from both sides." He still refers to many of those Disney execs, including ABC Studios chief Patrick Moran and the network's entertainment president Channing Dungey, as "family," and praises Iger, the "best CEO in the world," for expertly handling him during the episode and the ensuing imbroglio. "The boss doesn't have to explain himself, but he explained enough — and he [did so] in a way that really gave light in a different way. And more than that, he spoke to me as a person." Barris is considerably less laudatory of Ben Sherwood, the man Iger put atop Disney's TV assets — though Sherwood's days in that position, incidentally (or not), are said to be numbered as the post-merger structure takes shape. It was the executive's style at which Barris bristled: "The way that [Ben] chose to deal with me in this particular episode, I felt a way about it and I still do. He'd make it seem like it was an open environment but really it wasn't, and those are things I see very clearly. Everyone wants to say it's open arms, but just tell me it's not and I'll respect you more."
At ABC's urging, Barris had his editor test a few of the suggested cuts — but it wasn't as easy as a nip here or a tuck there, and the sheer tonnage of anti-Trump material rippling through the episode ultimately made the exercise futile. Barris hated what came back. "What it ended up being, and I think the network would agree, was not a true representation of what we intended to do," he says. "Because if it was, we would've shown it." Unable to reach a compromise, they collectively decided to scrap it. Not long after, Barris and his team would begin conversations with those same executives about being let out of his four-year contract, which he'd entered into only a year earlier. The creator also began talks with other high-profile suitors looking to elbow their way into the Kenya Barris business. And who could blame them? He's been heralded as a modern Norman Lear — "One of the most flattering things I can hear," says Lear himself — with his groundbreaking comedy giving way to a spinoff, Freeform's Grown-ish, and a growing cadre of films including the 2017 summer smash Girls Trip, which he co-wrote. By mid-August, it was all done: Barris had exited ABC Studios and entered into an agreement with Netflix, joining a roster of heavyweights like Ryan Murphy, Jenji Kohan and his mentor, Shonda Rhimes. The deal is said to be in the high eight figures.
"If I was going to step out, I wanted to do something where I could take off all the straps and really hang out of the plane," he says on a late-summer morning in Malibu. "I want to be Netflix with attitude — loud, bold and unapologetic."
Barris is eager to focus on his next chapter, but Hollywood is still buzzing about the tightly guarded details of his last one. The script for "Please, Baby, Please," after all, is all but impossible to find — "wiped from the planet," says one top rep — and even key castmembers can't get their hands on a completed episode. Anderson says he's desperate for it to get out, if for no other reason than he believes it's a powerful 22 minutes of television, but Barris insists it never will. "And honestly," he says, "I hope it doesn't because I'll be looked at as the blame for it and I'll fucking get sued."
His decision to move on, however, wasn't just about the shelved episode. It was an accumulation of realizations about the limitations of network TV and frustrations about his own inability to penetrate. While he was being lavished with plaudits and honors — to say nothing of being invited to dole out keynotes and speak at college graduations — not a single one of Barris' other projects moved forward at ABC.
The one that hit hardest was a 2017 comedy pilot titled Libby & Malcolm. It was the timeliest of Barris' offerings, centered on an interracial couple of two political pundits on opposite ends of the spectrum, played by Emmy winners Felicity Huffman and Courtney B. Vance. After multiple reshoots, at ABC's request, the network passed. The decision coincided with another of his pilots, a dramedy starring Toni Collette, not going forward; his spinoff Grown-ish being pushed to Disney's lesser-watched cable network; and Black-ish being moved out from behind Modern Family. The quadruple blow left Barris incensed.
"I'm aware when my things aren't good," he says now. "But I'd [gladly] have a forum and show these pilots to the world. If I'm crazy, judge me. I've done things where I'm like, 'Ugh, that wasn't right,' these were not that. And it just becomes so frustrating."
In late 2017, he finally got a series order for an Alec Baldwin comedy only to see Baldwin change his mind and bail a few months later; not long after, a pilot that ABC had shown little interest in was dropped by another network. Meanwhile, Black-ish got parked behind Roseanne, which gave it a significant ratings boost but a caustic association. Had ABC not canceled the revived series when it did, Barris was prepared to speak out. "Because fuck Roseanne," he says. "She's a fuckin' monster. And they were like, 'Why is this monster killing villagers?' And I was like, 'Because that's what a monster does.'"
"Please, Baby, Please" was Barris' breaking point. He'd been inspired to tell the story after reading an article about how Americans hadn't been this anxious since the Vietnam War. "There's this P.C. culture that's been created where people feel like not talking about things makes it better," he says, "but I think it makes it worse and that's why I wanted to talk about the last year." So, with an assist from Peter Saji, he wrote the episode and then decided he'd direct it, too. He had no way to know then that it would be his last time doing either.
Disney's decision to let him walk wasn't so simple. At a time when Netflix is vacuuming up creative and executive talent, doing so risked signaling to the community that contracts at its studio don't carry much weight. But, ultimately, that concern was trumped by the realization that the relationship had run its course. According to insiders, the company saw little upside in holding him captive, particularly since he didn't come cheap and it was unlikely they'd get much more out of him. Though Barris and several others flatly deny he got out by threatening that ABC had somehow breached his contract, as some in town had hypothesized, ABC sources say his reps did test variations on "We can't control what he's going to say." Says one company insider, "It wasn't worth it."
With Barris suddenly on the market, Warner Bros. made a play that's said to have been even richer than Netflix's, but he had reservations. "I worried that at the end of the day I was still gonna have to do pilots and I was still gonna have to do network television," says Barris. "It was the hardest decision for financial reasons because it was an amazing, generous offer, but if I was leaving ABC to go to Warner Bros. I feared I might be dancing to the same [song]." Netflix was an easier sell. He loved its "artist first" mantra, and the freedom to be able to tell other types of stories.
Still, he isn't sure he would have made the leap had it not been for Rhimes. The Grey's Anatomy creator, who famously got out of her ABC Studios deal with a year left on her contract, has been a role model to Barris. "I'm doing what I'm doing because of her. She's a black writer but she wrote shows and that opened up the door for the types of things I wanted to do," he says. "And for someone who was that successful at network TV for that long to make that move [to Netflix] made me understand the atrophy that can happen." Put another way: If Rhimes — who had an entire night of programming named after her at ABC — could bail, so could Barris.
Though Disney's top executives declined to comment for this story, Dungey told THR this summer: "Things are cyclical and Kenya is at a point in his career where he wants to explore some different things narratively that he didn't feel he could do in broadcast."
Before Black-ish, Barris was another angsty staff writer — on The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show and Soul Food, among others — trying to get his own show. He penned pilot after pilot, 18 in total. A few of them got made; none of them were ordered to series. It took No. 19, the first built wholly on autobiography, to understand where he'd been going wrong.
"I kept trying to make things for everybody else," says the L.A. native, whose hardscrabble upbringing with an overworked mom and abusive dad is hard to play for laughs. "If I was writing about my family, I'd change the names to, like, Asher and Dillon." Barris even had a go-to outfit to ensure he fit in when he'd go in to pitch. There was a button-down white shirt, cuffed a few times on each heavily tattooed forearm. He'd dress it up with khakis or down with a boot-cut jean, and he'd finish off the look with a pair of Rod Lavers or a Puma slide. His close-cropped hair was almost always hidden under a baseball cap; some days it was the Red Sox, others it was the Yankees. The choice was strictly sartorial but Barris was prepared to feign loyalty to either team if questioned.
"I called it my cloak of white acceptance," he says now with a laugh. But he'd done his research. The cuffs came up or down depending on what type of white person was sitting across from him. "I was living so much for the notion of assimilation 'cause you want to be the safe black guy."
That guy got work in white writers rooms, Barris reasoned, and that's where he wanted to be. Or rather, it's where he felt he needed to be. He'd tried the other route, writing on traditionally black shows like The Game, which at its height was shattering cable records on BET. "I'd walk into a staffing meeting and I'd say I'm on The Game and they'd be like, 'What's The Game?'" he says. "One of my better friends — he's a white guy, and he wasn't in any way trying to be a dick — said to me, 'Yeah, but those were black people watching.' I was like, 'What the fuck did you just say? Like, what, those numbers don't count?'"
Barris couldn't help but internalize the blank stares. So much so that when he'd be asked by bosses if he'd rather have his own show on BET or be a supervising producer on a series like Modern Family, his answer was always immediate and definitive: the latter. "Everybody would be like, 'Why?' Like, 'That's just you pandering to the white man,'" he says. "I was like, 'Yes, but at the same time I understand that I'm in this business to be in this business.' And I knew that the only way that I could really make those voices relevant was I had to cross over."
With Black-ish, he finally got that opportunity. He'd workshopped the idea over drinks with Anderson — the two had never met, but a mutual manager, Brian Dobbins, had a sense they'd get along. As one drink turned into several, they learned that they had more in common than they didn't. Both hail from Los Angeles — Anderson from Compton, Barris from Inglewood — and both are first-generation success stories. "We're also both the only African-Americans who live in our respective neighborhoods, and we talked about what that's afforded us in life and, more importantly, what that's afforded our children," says Anderson. "How we're giving them a different and better upbringing than we had. Then a week later, Kenya reached out to me and said, 'I think I have our show.'" By then, Barris — whose own financial trajectory changed dramatically in 2003, when he helped his childhood pal Tyra Banks sell America's Next Top Model — had worked in more of his own family life. He included characters like Rainbow, the biracial anesthesiologist mother, played by Ross, who's modeled after his high-school sweetheart, now wife.
It was important to both men that this creation of theirs be given the biggest possible stage. They flirted with the idea of FX for a time but feared it could be perceived as a niche show on cable. "We wanted to make sure that it felt big and noisy but also very mainstream," says Barris, who was ultimately struck by then-chief Paul Lee's passion and the significance of telling this story on "America's Broadcasting Channel." Once Black-ish was ordered to series, he assembled a room that reflected the world he was portraying — a polyglot of age, gender and race. Collectively, the staff mined subjects, including the N-word, police brutality and postpartum depression, that were not previously considered broadcast fare. Says his collaborator Jonathan Groff, who's white, "Kenya's always trying to get those different voices together and have everyone really surprise each other without worrying about offending each other."
The ABC marriage was never perfect, however. There famously was pushback on the title (the network preferred The Johnsons), and an initial round of testing yielded notes like, "Do you have to talk about so much black stuff?" Even as the series was scooping up Emmy nominations (13 to date) and a Peabody, ABC's standards and practices division remained in almost perpetual panic. Vicki Dummer, the head of ABC's current department whom Barris says he "loves to death," once approached him with test results that expressed concerns about his "Juneteenth" episode making the series' sizable white audience uncomfortable. "I was like, 'Vicky, you mean the episode about how talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable makes white people uncomfortable?' And we laughed at the fuckin' irony of it," he says. "We ultimately showed it and it was a well-received episode, but she was doing her job and that's a network fight."
When Barris arrives for breakfast at the Chateau Marmont in late August, there's no Red Sox cap or white button-down shirt. Instead, he has a few diamond chains dangling from his neck and a thousand-dollar pair of Louis Vuitton sneakers covering his feet. His loose-fitting jeans are held up by a Vuitton belt, his wrist is wrapped in a diamond-studded Apple watch and his inked-up arms now are almost entirely exposed.
"I don't want to be gaudy," he says, "but I do want to stand out."
The morning's locale was his choosing and he seems to know everyone who walks through the door. "At least everyone who is black," he says with a laugh. But the decision to spend time at places that border on cliche, like the Chateau or the Soho House, another Barris haunt, is a conscious one on his part. "It's important to make our presence known because it is tenderizing the meat of what's to come," he explains. "Because the next thing you know, my daughter and her friends feel comfortable coming and Lena [Waithe] feels comfortable coming and then there's no longer a side-eye from people because it starts to become …" Normalized? "Yeah."
Barris is acutely aware of the racial breakdown in every room he inhabits, even occasionally roping his kids into a game he calls "Count the Black People." (When he took them to see Hamilton on Broadway, they counted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oprah Winfrey.) It's a broader topic that he loves exploring through his art, but he shudders at the notion of being some sort of poster child for Hollywood's diversity push — and he's not particularly interested in sitting on any more panels to pontificate on the subject, either. In fact, he's so tired of talking about "diversity" that he once broke down in tears on an industry stage. " 'Diversity' became this catchphrase for the easing of liberal guilt and I felt like there was starting to be an overcorrection, which often happens, and overcorrections tend to re-correct themselves," he says. "Plus, I didn't want to be a part of a moment; I wanted to be a part of a movement."
He's hopeful that Netflix will allow him that. He got to know chief content officer Ted Sarandos through a Shaft reboot he's penning for Samuel L. Jackson, which Netflix will distribute internationally. Sarandos was impressed not only by the strong point of view in Barris' work but also by his volume, particularly in film, where he parlayed early successes writing Girls Trip and an installment of Barbershop into at least a half-dozen other opportunities. With the aid of Adderall and very little sleep, he's co-authored scripts for reboots of Shaft, Cheaper By the Dozen and White Men Can't Jump along with a Russell Simmons biopic that's now shelved because of the sexual assault allegations against its subject. Still to come: a Bob Marley animated film and, ideally, a Last Dragon reboot, which he'd like to write and direct.
The fact that Barris has had considerably fewer scores on the TV side, where his Netflix pact is focused (for now, anyway), is of little concern to his new employer. Sarandos suggests that it speaks more to the narrow parameters of broadcast than it does Barris' ability. "And Netflix isn't [in the business of] having creators spinning their wheels on shows that are never going to get made," Sarandos says. "We're in the programming business to make programming." He expects his latest hire will be working across the company's many divisions, from scripted to stand-up.
In recent weeks, Barris has settled into his new offices at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, and enlisted several pals — a mix of writers and writing assistants — to join his collective. He used to say he wanted to be "the black Judd Apatow," a mentor and magnet to aspiring creatives; but after watching a recent documentary on Alexander McQueen, he's now drawing inspiration from the fashion designer, too. "When McQueen went to go run Givenchy, he was like, 'I'll do it, but I gotta bring my boys.' And I was like, 'That's exactly what I want to do. I want to be in my salon with my crew.'" There's already a lengthy list of collaborators, including Grown-ish showrunner Julie Bean, who say they owe their careers to Barris. "There's no other man in this town who was willing to give me a show," Bean says. "But that's who he is. If the UPS delivery guy came up to Kenya and said, 'I have an idea for a show,' he'd listen and he'd probably go, 'Oh yeah, you should develop it,' and then he'd help him do it."
There is, of course, a safety in numbers, too. Collaborators can help shoulder both the workload and the pressure, and Barris has plenty of each. "I don't know if it's scary for Ryan or Shonda, but I'm fuckin' terrified," he says. He insists he doesn't need ratings to know whether he's succeeded or failed — and neither will his bosses or peers. The way he figures, Netflix has about eight to 10 shows that people actually talk about, and his will need to be No. 11, 12 and 13 to be considered a success. He adds, "One of my fears at Netflix is that there are so many shows, so it's my job to make sure in that huge bundle we somehow find a way to be noisy."
The company's 130 million subscribers won't need to wait long. The prolific idea generator — who was still passionately pitching projects at ABC Studios even as he was negotiating his way out the door — is already hurling out new ones: a comedy special from Black-ish's Deon Cole; a potential series adaptation of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates' searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.
Barris keeps coming back to this idea of turning the family comedy on its head, too. He's cagey about what exactly he has in mind, though it's clear his family could be a treasure trove of material for the not-fit-for-Disney version, as it was for years on Black-ish. He shares a few Barris family doozies he'd love to mine for laughs, like the time he took his oldest, college-aged daughter with him to Coachella and he found her high as kite. "I'm like, 'Kaleigh, are you smoking fucking weed?' And she goes, 'Oh shit.' I'm like, 'What's wrong with you?'" he says. "It ended up being this breakthrough for us because after it, she talked to me about other things and it caused such a tighter bond between us. But in that moment, I wanted to be a parent and I wanted to react but, like, I'm high, too. And that's a thing I'd love to show but just by the nature of network television I could never do it." Until now.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.