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“I Want to Do In-Your-Face S***”: Kenya Barris on Why He Left His $100M Netflix Deal to Launch BET Studios

The showrunner turned mogul reveals a new record label, podcast venture, book deal and a first-look film pact: "It’s a special time in this industry if you’re Black and you have something to say."

On an otherwise quiet Friday in October, Kenya Barris watched as his name hurtled through the headlines.

The stories weren’t about a new project he was writing or directing, though there were plenty of those; instead, the creative force behind Black-ish, #blackAF and Girls Trip was eyeing an exit from Netflix — the first of the streamer’s nine-figure producers to depart, and only halfway through his multiyear deal. His next act, per the flurry of reports, would be a stake in some sort of studio venture with ViacomCBS. The details were still spotty, accelerating the gossip mill and leaving many in Hollywood wondering: What had gone wrong?

“I think a lot of people thought I got fired or I quit, like ‘Fuck this,’ over some kind of beef with Netflix,” says Barris, speaking publicly about the move for the first time — but the truth was more complicated, as he revealed over a series of conversations, which began with lunch at the members-only San Vicente Bungalows in early June.

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Long before a racial reckoning prompted the 46-year-old to reevaluate his priorities, the Netflix marriage had been imperfect. Barris wasn’t willing to be the broadly commercial producer that the streamer wanted him to be, and Netflix wasn’t interested in being the edgy home that Barris craved. He isn’t even sure the company would have re-upped his $100 million deal had he stayed, but it didn’t matter. By January, his reps had untangled him from the pricey partnership, as they’d done with his Disney pact a few years earlier, and hammered out a new deal that gave him equity — roughly a third, according to Barris — and a board seat in what would become BET Studios.

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Kenya Barris was photographed June 4, 2021, at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. Photographed by Jill Greenberg

“I’ll call this a diversity play, in some aspects, because it’s important to call a spade a spade,” says Barris, acknowledging that “it’s a special time in this industry if you’re Black and you have something to say.” The plan, at least as he envisions it, is to sell premium content from underrepresented voices to outlets inside and out of the ViacomCBS portfolio. Already, Barris and the writers he’s helped to recruit have ideas for Hulu, Apple, Showtime and Starz, to name only a few. “I want to do in-your-face shit,” he says with his trademark bombast. “I want to sell to everybody — and if you don’t want to work with me, I’m not saying that you’re racist, but other people might.”

Seizing on the moment and his growing cultural capital, to say nothing of his bulging Rolodex, Barris quietly added a record label with Interscope, too, along with a book deal with Random House, a podcast partnership with Audible and a first-look film deal with Paramount — and he intends to have them all working in synergy, with him, a self-described “Black dude from Inglewood,” as its nucleus. “So, if we sign an artist on the record label and she’s amazing, it’s, ‘Can we put her story into a podcast, keep the IP, and then go take that to Netflix and sell it as a doc?’ ” he says, and you can almost see the wheels spinning. “Or if we get a book from Random House that we love, ‘Can we turn it into a TV show or a movie, and then do a podcast to supplement it?’ “

Though there are still more questions than answers, Barris has been busy staffing up (his Khalabo Ink Society is now at roughly 40 employees), signing artists and prepping his first collection of essays, which he’ll likely title This Is Basic Shit: Things We Know That We’re Shocked You Don’t. Even Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, with whom Barris still has plenty of business, offers praise: “Kenya has an opportunity to have an impact and legacy that few even dare to dream of.”

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“Music is such a key part of what I love doing,” says Kenya Barris, photographed June 4 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. Kenya Barris Photographed by Jill Greenberg

***

Netflix was supposed to be Barris’ savior — and in the summer of 2018, he was all but certain it was.

The prolific producer had been at loggerheads with his then-employer, ABC, over a particularly charged episode of his flagship, Black-ish, titled “Please, Baby, Please,” which wove events like the NFL kneeling protests into a bedtime story. Instead of allowing a neutered version to air during the Peabody-winning series’ fourth season, Barris agreed to scrap the episode. Not long after, he asked to be let out of his four-year contract, which he’d entered into only a year earlier.

With Barris suddenly on the open market, Netflix swooped in. The streamer’s offer wasn’t as lucrative as one Warner Bros. put forward, but the platform itself was an easier sell. “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 told THR at the time, using words like “loud,” “bold” and “unapologetic” to describe what viewers could expect. Not two years later, he released #blackAF, with each of its eight episodes titled “Because of Slavery.” The series wasn’t initially envisioned as a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style platform for Barris to play a version of himself but morphed into that at his urging. It launched in April 2020, and quickly became the most divisive thing Barris has ever made, an outcome that he insists thrills him — even if the pans from the Black community clearly rankle.

Among the show’s more vocal critics was Charlamagne tha God, who ripped #blackAF on his popular Breakfast Club radio show, telling listeners it was like “white people doing a bad impression of Black people.” Barris would be lying if he said such comments didn’t sting, but claims he’s more interested in cultivating “thought leaders” like Wes Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell, who’ve offered kudos. “Do I want Charlamagne to like my show? Yeah, I do, but I have to be honest with you, I care way less if Charlamagne likes my show than if Malcolm Gladwell does,” he says. “Because my taste is my talent — and Charlamagne has his lane, and it’s a very successful lane, it’s just not the lane I want.”

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“We went to New York recently and it was the first time they saw people recognize me, and they were not prepared,” says Barris, pictured with his wife and five of their six kids. Amanda Edwards/WireImage

Barris has been dragged for purportedly “making TV for white people” so many times, he actually wrote it into a storyline on #blackAF. He contends that he’s just trying to make TV that audiences, white and Black, want to watch, and maybe even helps them understand each other better in the process. And for the record, he does care what white people think of his work. “That’s Hollywood,” he says. “That’s the people who made the movies I love. Why would I not want them to like what I do? People are like, ‘You’re tap dancing.’ And I’m like, ‘Am I tap dancing, or am I wanting Michael Jordan to think I’m good, and I’m LeBron James?’ “

Still, it didn’t take long to see that #blackAF wasn’t exactly in Netflix’s wheelhouse either. “For Netflix, say we got 35 million viewers, they were like, ‘Well, it wasn’t Fuller House,’ ” says Barris, acknowledging that he often struggled to present the types of projects that excited Netflix executives, though a forthcoming drama with 50 Cent is said to be a clear exception. At one point, execs there tried to get Barris to run one of their multicam comedies — he won’t say which, but multiple sources say it was the critically maligned, since canceled Jamie Foxx sitcom, Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! — but he patently refused. “I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice,” he says now. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.” He pauses, and then rephrases: “Netflix became CBS.”

Those inside the streamer say that Barris, at least in the early days, was too focused on niche ideas. Ironically, as those same sources point out, he seemed to have no trouble churning out big fat commercial films, including Shaft, Barbershop and the Eddie Murphy hit Coming 2 America for Amazon. His eye was often caught wandering into other arenas, too. In fact, he’d all but finalized a podcast deal with Spotify, only to have Netflix executives kill it. “They said, ‘Well, we have a podcast,’ and I’m like, ‘Where?’ ” recalls Barris. “But I’m sure they do, or they will, and in their defense, they gave me a lot of money to make television.” And he intends to continue making plenty of it for the streamer, too, beginning with more #blackAF, which he reveals is forgoing its planned second season in favor of stand-alone #blackAF family vacation films in the vein of the National Lampoon vacation flicks that he and co-star Rashida Jones grew up loving. Already, he and the writers have been batting around ideas for #blackAF: Brazil and #blackAF: Mexico, by design — both are popular Netflix territories.

When it comes to Barris’ real-life family, he admits that he’s more comfortable with his rising profile than his six children, who range in age from 4 to 21, are. At least one or two have asked that their father stop acting — and though he insists it won’t be his focus going forward, he is eyeing a part in the Meet the Parents-meets-Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner comedy that he’s co-written with Jonah Hill, which he’ll also direct for Netflix later this year. It’s not the lifestyle that the Barris kids object to, of course, but rather the unwanted attention paid to such things as their dad’s growing real estate habit or his on-again, off-again marriage to their doctor mom. (For the time being, the two are still separated.) The regular potshots can be hard for them to stomach too, particularly the accusations of colorism, since every comedy Barris has created is based on his own family, which includes his biracial wife and their lighter-skinned children.

One of Barris’ daughters called him recently in tears over a dust-up surrounding the ABC Latinx family comedy that he is developing with Eva Longoria at ABC. The network’s new entertainment head, Craig Erwich, had referred to it as Brown-ish in an interview, and the backlash was swift and ugly, with one popular Tweet proclaiming, “black-ish, grown-ish, mixed-ish, brown-ish … na bro I think it’s time for you to FIN-ISH.” Barris, who’s still intimately involved in the “-ish” universe, with Black-ish readying its eighth and final season at ABC and Grown-ish still thriving at Freeform, is hopeful the project can survive the media maelstrom. “It was never going to be called Brown-ish, but even if it was, why is it that we turn on ourselves?” he says. “It immediately becomes, ‘Oh, he’s doing another family comedy.’ It’s like, yeah, I’m going to do 20 family comedies — no one questioned Norman Lear.”

As for Barris’ daughter, she would have preferred he clap back in the moment. “She was like ‘Dad, they’re trashing you, they’re making these ‘ish’ jokes, you have to say something,’ ” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Kaleigh, when they stop making ‘ish’ jokes is when we’re in trouble.”

***

It was a year ago in May that Barris had his epiphany. It came on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in early 2020. “Seeing that kid chased and gunned down, over and over, really fucked with me,” he says. A few months later, as the pandemic raged, another Black man by the name of George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police. Overnight, Barris’ three daughters became active in ways their father had never been; one launched the group Black Kids Who Care with her high school friends; another protested her way to jail. With three Black sons at home, Barris found himself unable to sleep at night.

As his breaking point neared, he called his agent, CAA’s Joe Cohen, and unloaded. “I need to speak to my people,” Barris said. “I need to be part of the conversation in a different way — and I’m not trying to be some type of civil rights hero here, but I do think it’s my job to take this moment that I have and open up doors for others.”

He’d watched as a few timely episodes of Black-ish re-aired as “events” on ABC and “Please, Baby, Please” was finally released on Hulu, and Barris realized how much he’d missed the weekly megaphone of network television. He was taken, too, with the idea of having his work everywhere, and not confined to simply Netflix, where a single no would spell the end. And as he reveals now, there were some noes that he had trouble swallowing, including one for an adaptation of New People, Danzy Senna’s New York Times best-seller about racial identity and passing. He’d snatched up the rights and delivered a script before its larger themes entered the zeitgeist. “They were like, ‘We don’t get this,’ and I’m like, ‘I promise you, it’s a thing,’ ” he says. “Cut to a few months later, and those stories start coming out and I’d just forward them. And they were sweet, they were like, ‘Maybe so,’ but at that point, it felt like we were chasing something rather than being ahead of it and being prescient.”

Barris had met with BET president Scott Mills when he first took over in early 2018, but he hadn’t been particularly interested in any meaningful collaboration until now. In Barris’ view, the network had historically struggled to produce shows that got talked about, which he’d attributed to its unwillingness to spend. “BET was always like secondhand embarrassment because it wasn’t at that same level,” says Barris. But now, he wondered, what if he could do something about that? What if he, a kind of talent magnet, could make it cool? So, he asked Cohen, “Do you think they’d give me a $100 million deal?” His agent was certain they wouldn’t, but he had another idea. The next thing Barris knew, he was sitting on Zoom with Mills and his boss, David Nevins, discussing a new, Black-owned studio, which they’d want him to partner in.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ ” recalls Barris. “It was not the conversation I expected to have in any way, shape or form, but I said, ‘The short answer is yes.’ “

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“One of the great things that Black-ish was able to do was pull the curtain back on things that people were uncomfortable talking about,” says Barris, with his cast at the NAACP Awards in 2015. Earl Gibson III/WireImage

First, however, he’d need to get out of his deal with Netflix. Cohen laid the groundwork with Sarandos, then Barris lobbed a call. “I was fucking terrified,” he says now. “This dude had come and saved me with a beyond-generous offer and he let me act, and I’m not an actor, in a show that wasn’t their cup of tea. And they paid a ton of money for that show, they let me put on Deon Cole’s special and an experimental sketch comedy show [Astronomy Club], they gave me beautiful offices and they never knocked on my door and asked what I was doing. I was like, ‘Is this the definition of ungrateful?’ ” But Sarandos got it, or at least he was gracious about it. Of course, there are plenty, including Barris, who suspect the Netflix head was probably just fine getting the nine-figure deal off his books.

Once word of his exit got out, Barris found himself fielding interest from other companies, too, including his former employer, Disney, now under new management, but none were willing to offer him an equity stake as Viacom did — and suddenly the thing that Barris never knew he was capable of getting became the thing he wanted most. The Viacom entity, he’d soon learn, also allows him to really, truly take his shows everywhere, and is considered to be flexible enough in its dealmaking that outlets actually want to buy from them. Plus, he gets a seat on the still-forming board, which he’s hopeful will give him a sense for where all that syndication money goes. And he’s able to puppeteer all the other pieces, too, from music to books to podcasts — a level of control a Disney or Netflix wouldn’t dare cede.

Mills’ perspective on the latter is simple: One of BET’s missions is “to empower Black Americans,” and by helping partners like Barris or Tyler Perry, who Forbes recently named to its billionaire list, add to their considerable wealth only benefits the larger Black community the brand serves. “So I’m really excited for the next time that Forbes calls and says, ‘Hey, there’s this extraordinary Black creative, and we just need you to verify some numbers because we’re about to put him on the [billionaire] list,’ ” says Mills. “It would be my second call, and I hope it happens soon.”

Still, the early days of studio building have not been without hiccups. Plans to line up other major Black producers as equity partners have been a challenge — “It’s still Viacom,” says one top rep — and the general uncertainty in the marketplace only adds complexity. “I don’t even know who’s going to own Viacom in six months,” says Barris. The title, BET Studios, has also been hotly debated, with Barris firmly against it. He was overruled by Mills, who’s committed to strengthening the brand name.

“Within our business, BET doesn’t have the kind of reputation that they want to have, so what I face is getting people to understand that, under Scott Mills, change is afoot,” says Barris’ manager, Brian Dobbins, himself a major player in Black Hollywood. To Mills’ credit, he’s actively cultivated relationships with top Black talent and their representatives, which has translated to projects from Lena Waithe and Lee Daniels, among others. Adds Dobbins, “And now getting a big shark like Kenya to jump into the water says that the water’s a little warmer and a little safer than you might have thought it was.”

And in typical Barris fashion, he’s wasted no time lining up projects. He says he walked out of The Irishman a year and a half ago inspired, if somewhat underwhelmed. “I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it, it was probably lesser Scorsese, but the one thing that became clear to me is that it probably needs to be the end of the Italian gangster movie,” he says. “They had an unbelievably successful run, but when you think about gangsters now, you think about Blacks and Latinos. I was like, ‘Why are we not telling those stories?’ ” So Barris now has a gang drama about the inception of the Crips, told through the eyes of founding member Michael Concepcion, in the works at Showtime. He’s also got an animated family comedy, from the point of view of a baby, moving forward at Nickelodeon, and he’s reteaming with Rashida Jones for an urban take on contemporary relationships. There’s a high-concept idea cooking with Simon Cowell and The Late Late Show With James Corden producer Ben Winston, too, and another one, about a rapper who buys a vineyard, with This Is Us‘ Dan Fogelman, is gestating. And that doesn’t even include the dozen-plus films — a mix of writing, producing and directing projects — that he’s running through his new deal with Viacom’s film division.

Nevins, who connects with Barris weekly, seems genuinely thrilled by his catch. “The thing you get with Kenya is not just a major league talent but somebody who’s an idea generation factory. And the temptation is always to say, ‘Kenya, focus,’ but then he hits you with that one more idea, and you’re like, ‘That’s a really good idea. We’ve got to do that,’ ” he says. “Like, he pitches a reality show for CBS that we’re talking about now and, I’m like, ‘Eh, don’t focus on reality shows,’ but then you’re like, ‘That’s a really good idea,’ and I don’t have the willpower to say no to a good idea.”

***

Barris knows he’s out on a ledge now, betting on himself in a way that he never has before.

Ever since news of the new studio leaked out in October, he’s been bombarded with inquiring texts and calls. Should others want what he has? And if he’s being honest, he doesn’t know the answer. It’s all still so new, and he’s under no illusion that it will be successful during the four or five years that he intends to be actively writing and selling there. In fact, Barris accepts that it probably won’t be. “But maybe I set it up where 15 years from now it’s worth something,” he says. “Maybe I lay the groundwork and fight the fights so it becomes something that one day we can all share in.”

His friends, a who’s who of Black entertainment, including Waithe, are watching with bated breath: “If it works,” she says, “it could change the industry completely.”

But Barris insists that at 50, which is how old he’ll be when his commitment to Viacom as an active contributor comes to an end, he’ll be done, too — or done in this form, at this pace, anyway. For the next however many minutes, one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood describes his plan for pseudo retirement. “Maybe I’ll write a book or do a movie a year, or maybe I’ll be an executive, I don’t know, but I’ll definitely be semi-retired, that’s a promise,” he says, acknowledging that he’d spent an inadvisable amount of time that morning looking enviously at photographs from a barbecue Sean “Diddy” Combs had just thrown, which of course Barris couldn’t attend because he was holed up doing rewrites. “It’s constantly me feeling like I’m missing out. So, while I still have at least some youth to me, I want to jump in a pool with my kids, I want to go play basketball, I want to have fun hopping on a jet. I just want to be able to slow down and enjoy all of this.”

But first, Barris has a studio to build.

***

Movies. Music. Podcasting. Books. Barris’ corporate partners are betting the super-connector can deliver on elusive media synergies.

Kenya’s Kingdom

Movies. Music. Podcasting. Books. Barris’ corporate partners are betting the super-connector can deliver on elusive media synergies

STUDIO: Barris has taken to describing his new TV home, BET Studios, as a modern-day United Artists. He’s a major equity partner, and the team is actively trying to recruit others. To date, they’ve been inking deals with mid- and upper-level writers, who were No. 2s on big shows or No. 1s on smaller ones. The plan now is to sell premium programming from those underrepresented voices inside and out of the ViacomCBS portfolio.

STUDIO

Barris has taken to describing his new TV home, BET Studios, as a modern-day United Artists. He’s a major equity partner, and the team is actively trying to recruit others. To date, they’ve been inking deals with mid- and upper-level writers, who were No. 2s on big shows or No. 1s on smaller ones. The plan now is to sell premium programming from those underrepresented voices inside and out of the ViacomCBS portfolio.

Music: “We try to seek out creative relationships with people who not only move culture, but see where culture is going,” says Interscope Geffen A&M Records vice chairman Steve Berman, who puts Barris squarely in that category. As part of Khalabo Music’s new label, he has already signed a few artists, though he claims he doesn’t “want to have a huge roster” and intends to work them into his film, TV and podcasting projects immediately.

MUSIC

“We try to seek out creative relationships with people who not only move culture, but see where culture is going,” says Interscope Geffen A&M Records vice chairman Steve Berman, who puts Barris squarely in that category. As part of Khalabo Music’s new label, he has already signed a few artists, though he claims he doesn’t “want to have a huge roster” and intends to work them into his film, TV and podcasting projects immediately.

 

Films: Barris got his start in TV, but film (via Paramount, going forward) has become a priority. Among his upcoming projects: a Juneteenth musical with Pharrell Williams and a comedy with Jonah Hill; a Bad News Bears-style film with Snoop Dogg as a football coach; a bisexual rom-com inspired by Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski; and an adaptation of Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground with New Slate Ventures. Other collaborators include Billy Porter, Blake Griffin and Migos.

FILMS

Barris got his start in TV, but film (via Paramount, going forward) has become a priority. Among his upcoming projects: a Juneteenth musical with Pharrell Williams and a comedy with Jonah Hill; a Bad News Bears-style film with Snoop Dogg as a football coach; a bisexual rom-com inspired by Queer Eye‘s Antoni Porowski; and an adaptation of Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground with New Slate Ventures. Other collaborators include Billy Porter, Blake Griffin and Migos.

 

BOOKS: Barris has inked a book deal with Random House, which, he reveals, will kick off with a collection of essays tentatively titled This Is Basic Shit: Things We Know That We’re Shocked You Don’t. “It’ll be musings on stuff that I’m looking at in Hollywood and in life, like, ‘What? You thought that was OK?’ ” says Barris, who’s already eyeing a new, more sweeping partnership with the publisher. “Like, you thought it was OK to touch my kid’s hair?”BOOKS

Barris has inked a book deal with Random House, which, he reveals, will kick off with a collection of essays tentatively titled This Is Basic Shit: Things We Know That We’re Shocked You Don’t. “It’ll be musings on stuff that I’m looking at in Hollywood and in life, like, ‘What? You thought that was OK?’ ” says Barris, who’s already eyeing a new, more sweeping partnership with the publisher. “Like, you thought it was OK to touch my kid’s hair?”

Podcasting: He’s signed a multi-project deal with Audible, too, which includes fiction, nonfiction and talk. Per Barris, he’ll deliver a minimum of four a year — some to supplement his TV and films; others potentially ripe for adaptation. Among his early ideas is a podcast he’d co-host, called The Most Hated. He says, “I’d want to bring on Drake, bring on LeBron [James], people who are the most hated that week, and hear their side and how it’s affecting them.”

PODCASTING

He’s signed a multi-project deal with Audible, too, which includes fiction, nonfiction and talk. Per Barris, he’ll deliver a minimum of four a year — some to supplement his TV and films; others potentially ripe for adaptation. Among his early ideas is a podcast he’d co-host, called The Most Hated. He says, “I’d want to bring on Drake, bring on LeBron [James], people who are the most hated that week, and hear their side and how it’s affecting them.”

Television: “The good news for us is we’re still in business with Kenya on many fronts,” says Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos, “and we’ll be in business with him for a long time to come.” Indeed, Barris is already prepping #blackAF vacation films and still has an animated music series with Kid Cudi and two docs forthcoming — one about civil rights attorney Ben Crump, the other about the friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. There’s plenty more in development, too, including a 50 Cent drama.

TELEVISION

“The good news for us is we’re still in business with Kenya on many fronts,” says Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos, “and we’ll be in business with him for a long time to come.” Indeed, Barris is already prepping #blackAF vacation films and still has an animated music series with Kid Cudi and two docs forthcoming — one about civil rights attorney Ben Crump, the other about the friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. There’s plenty more in development, too, including a 50 Cent drama.

THR cover 24

This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.