'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Kenya Barris ('#BlackAF')

The creator of 'Black-ish' and its spinoffs reflects on race and class, #BlackLivesMatter and Juneteenth, and his unlikely journey from the streets to a $100 million Netflix deal.
Courtesy of Matt Sayles/Netflix
Kenya Barris

"In terms of the polarizing nature of the show," Kenya Barris says of his new Netflix comedy series #BlackAF, "I feel like the reason this show should get an Emmy — and I've never cared and I've never said this before about anything I've done — is because that is what art is. There's not another show right now that you can look back at, with what we're going through [across America in terms of police brutality, Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth] — we talked about this!"

Barris, who is black and has explored race and class in America throughout his body of work, is often described as a successor to Norman Lear, one of his heroes and mentors. The 2019 recipient of the Producers Guild of America’s Visionary Award (presented to him by Lear), he made his name with Black-ish, a comedy series which was inspired by his own family; has run on ABC since 2014; and received a Peabody Award in 2015 and best comedy series Emmy nominations in 2016, 2017 and 2018. He also presided over its spinoffs — Grown-ish, which has run on Freeform since 2018, and Mixed-ish, which has run on ABC since 2019 — before leaving ABC for Netflix in 2018 as part of a $100 million three-year deal.

The 45-year-old's first Netflix project, #BlackAF, in which he plays a more heightened and less likable version of himself than Anthony Anderson plays on Black-ish, has divided critics (it has a 46% critics' rating on RottenTomatoes) and audiences (its RT audience score is 76% favorable). Barris, for his part, says that comes with the territory of doing something daring: "Black-ish never was awarded [an Emmy] because 'the cool cable shows' were taking it. This is the cool cable show!"

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Barris, who was born in Inglewood, Cal., is the son of a GM factory worker and a homemaker who divorced when he was a young child. He subsequently experienced more than his share of trauma, losing a younger brother to leukemia, observing his father physically abuse his mother and witnessing his mother shoot his father (who survived). But, he emphasizes, "There's a lot of beauty that comes from tragedy... comedy, in particular, is an offshoot of tragedy."

When Barris was 10, his father survived an accident at work which resulted in a "considerable settlement." With her half, Barris' mother relocated herself and her surviving children to "Hancock Park adjacent," which offered a safer neighborhood and better schools. Ultimately, Barris went off to Clark Atlanta University, from which he graduated with a degree in mass media arts in 1996, and then returned to LA, where he worked in city politics, publicity and music publishing — even though, he says, "I always knew that I wanted to do something with comedy. I always really, really enjoyed writing."

In the late 1990s, out of frustration with the lack of TV opportunities for black people, Barris worked on a documentary about the problem, for which he interviewed Felicia D. Henderson, who was then a writer on Moesha. She subsequently hired him as a PA on her next show, Sister Sister, and helped land him a place in Paramount's diversity initiative for aspiring writers. After that, until 2013, he consistently — if also with great frustration — worked in TV writers' rooms for shows run by others, while churning out his own pilots on the side — the first 18 of which were not ordered to series. (By now a young husband and father, he was assisted financially by proceeds from America's Next Top Model, which he and his childhood best friend Tyra Banks co-developed and sold to TV in 2003.)

For pilot #19, though, he decided to approach things differently. "I kind of had my 'fuck it' moment," he recalls, "and I was like, 'I'm not gonna try and appeal to anyone else; I'm gonna tell my story and I'm not gonna pull any punches.'" The result was Black-ish — the patriarch of which, his surrogate, was originally a diversity hire in a TV writers' room, but morphed into an ad executive at the request of ABC, which won a bidding war for the show in 2013, recognizing its potential appeal to viewers both black and white. "I wrote it for my people, for my community," Barris says, "but I wanted everybody to watch it."

Many did. Black-ish became a critical and ratings hit, with even First Lady Michelle Obama declaring it her favorite show, and many began likening it to the immensely influential The Cosby Show. Barris, however, had modeled it after different shows altogether, namely, those made by Lear. "He played much more of a role in my life than Bill Cosby did," Barris emphasizes. "Black-ish is All in the Family meets Good Times... The Cosby Show was about a family that happened to be black; Black-ish is about a family that was absolutely black."

Also like Lear's shows, Black-ish has always dealt with difficult social issues — from the n-word to Juneteenth — in humorous ways. But, in 2018, Barris was devastated when ABC refused to air an episode into which he poured his heart, soul and more money and resources than any other, "Please, Baby, Please," which dealt with Pres. Donald Trump, Charlottesville and the NFL kneeling controversy. It is understood that Disney, ABC's parent company, was concerned that the episode could derail its then-in-progress efforts to acquire Fox, so they buried it. Soon thereafter, Barris was extricated from his contract with the network and signed a new one with Netflix. (Interestingly, in light of recent events, he believes that "Please, Baby, Please" may yet see the light of day: "I talked to Dana Walden and Bob Iger and Peter Rice, and I still have hope that that episode is actually going to air," he reveals. "It's closer to airing now than it ever has been.")

In moving from ABC to Netflix, Barris was following in the footsteps one of his mentors, showrunner Shonda Rhimes, and would soon be followed by Channing Dungey, who had become the head of the Alphabet Network midway through the run of Black-ish. "It's been a great situation," he says of his new home — although he is deeply frustrated by the harsh reactions that greeted his first high-profile show for the streamer, #BlackAF, upon its debut in April. "Look," he says, "the show was not perfect. I'm a crappy actor. I got better, but I feel like some of that crappy acting actually helped the role. A true actor couldn't have played that role. It would not have been the same show."

Many have knocked #BlackAF for revisiting territory Barris previously covered on Black-ish, only now without the constraint of network standards and practices. "The idea that people criticize me for it being so close to Black-ish?" Barris responds with indignation, "I'm like, 'Go fuck yourself, dude.' I would do it again. Writers tell their stories in their voices... This was a version of my story... It's important to tell over and over and over again, because it needs to get hammered into the idea that we [blacks] are part of the fabric of this country in a way that you're not seeing." He adds, "I would not do anything different," and, "If it's allowed to come back, I'm doing it again."

In the meantime, Barris is, like the rest of America, processing the unprecedented moment of history through which we are living, with both a deadly pandemic invisibly afflicting millions and massive social unrest in the streets following the killing of George Floyd. Much like Anthony Anderson's Dre has tough conversations with his family on Black-ish, Barris, a father of six, has been having them with his. (He notes, "My daughter was actually detained by police on the Friday night that it happened," he says of Floyd's death. "My 18-year-old, who just came home from NYU, was involved in a rubber bullet incident and seeing police cars set on fire and it really shook her up as she was out there protesting.")

He is also, he discloses, working on a new project related to Juneteenth. "I'm in talks with Netflix," he says. "Pharrell [Williams] and I are gonna do a musical. We sold it first to Oskar Eustis at the Public [Theater in New York], and now we're gonna do it with Jordan Cooper at Netflix as a film. The reason we got into that — that we have to do this now — is because of the karmic irony of the notion that Colin Kaepernick was fired from his job for kneeling for the specific cause of police brutality — not racial equality, not equal pay, not this or that, but police brutality — and was specifically blackballed from his job, and now we have a young man losing his life in this tragic, public way."